10 Practical Things No One Tells You about Teaching (Art)

The first year teaching is tough; this is both good and bad. On the one hand, everything is new and you are forever trying to find your groove. On the other, you are new, fresh out of school, and full of new, and probably awesome, ideas.  Experienced teachers rely on the wonderful energy of first years, as it often revitalizes programs and curriculum  Never be ashamed to be new, and never be afraid to share some new theory you learned in school (we are old, and we need you to teach us about it).  While the first year may not be your hardest year, it will come close.  For Art teachers, this first year can be even more difficult since we are often the only teacher of our subject in an entire school. Whereas other first year teachers can rely on other same-subject teachers for aid, Art teachers stand alone.  Here are 10, practical things about teaching that no one ever told me about, but are invaluable to my classroom and practice: 
1.       Make good with the people who run the school
No, this doesn’t mean the principal, administrators, team leaders, and/or fellow teachers. I’m talking about the secretaries, administrative assistants, bookkeepers, paraprofessionals, and janitors. Without these critical people, it would be hard for school to happen.
The front office staff are often your first wave of defense when it comes to anything important happening in the school environment. I’ve had my grits saved by the front office staff at my school so many times!  From a whispered, “Hey, unscheduled fire drill is happening at 10:05 a.m.” to “FYI there are going to people from the district office in the building on Friday,” these are the people that can make or break your day.  People who do not get along with the front office staff suffer. We are only allotted so much copy paper each quarter; I always run out. But, my awesome front office staff will *always* find me a few sheets when I run short. I know the people who antagonize the front office staff don’t get that kind of treatment.  I try to always be friendly, genuine, appreciative and pleasant with my front office staff. . .I also buy them all lunch once a year as an appreciation for all they do. I’m lucky; my front office colleagues are superstars.
The paraprofessionals work tirelessly with some of the most difficult students and/or difficult situations in the entire school.  They are a huge untapped resource when it comes to behavior management because they have literally seen it all. They also serve in a lot of classrooms throughout the day. They are often privy to the most gossip, and know the most about the inner-workings of your colleague’s classrooms. For instance, I might wonder, “Why is John crying today?” A paraprofessional will often know (even if John is not his/her student) because s/he was present when the upsetting situation went down.  These people are incredible workers, and you should never discount the wisdom they have to share.
The janitors keep your school clean. They provide you with cleaning materials and paper towels. They move furniture and help you remove graffiti.  If you are nice, they will help you haul heavy stuff, and give you extras (like trash bags, brooms, and/or steel wool etc. etc.). They have a thankless and very hard job.  Treat them with respect, and demonstrate that you are doing all you can to keep your room clean, so they only have to do a final sweep/change of garbage bags.  I always leave my room with the floor picked up, chairs neatly stacked, and garbage cans all in one spot. It is the little things, y’all.
2.       Procure spray bottles/ recycle spray bottles and funnels
It seems so random, but I use spray bottles and funnels all the time. Spray bottles come in handy for cleaning and for clay projects.  Whenever I see cheap ones, I buy them up.  I don’t fill the spray bottles with typical cleaning solution, as that might cause allergic reactions to students (and you know at least one kid will spray another kid in the face at some point in your teaching career).  Instead, I put about 1 Tblsp of hand-washing dish-soap in a spray bottle and fill the rest with water (if I have it on hand, I’ll add a scented oil for a good smell).  I use this solution for kids to spray down tables etc. etc. for cleaning. At the end of the day, I spray everything with a bit of Lysol to keep the germs down. Funnels come in handy for all that filling and re-filling of bottles, cups, and spray-bottles that you will inevitably do.
3.       Buy soap, and forget about hand sanitizer
I don’t know what it is about the soap provided at school, but it is pretty worthless when it comes to cleaning art grime. The soap at my school is this pink goop with the consistency of thick water.  I’ve taken to buying up liquid soap whenever I see it on sale (usually $1 a bottle or less).  It doesn’t have to be “nice” soap; just soap that isn’t produced in mass quantities seems to be a lot more effective. I also don’t buy hand sanitizer anymore. Students believe that hand sanitizer will “clean” any dirty mess. The reality is, in Art class especially, you need a little sudsy water to work off the grime; hand sanitizer doesn’t do that. I have seen kiddos who have just used hand sanitizer, with the dirtiest, yuckiest looking hands because they aren’t washing away grime; they are “cleaning” it. Ew. Ew. Ew.  I’ve also noticed that some kids use hand sanitizer as a scented product to keep themselves “fresh.” They will take as many as eight pumps of product and rub it all over hands, elbows, knees etc. etc. That just gets wasteful, and it becomes one more thing you have to manage.
I keep a little bottle of hand sanitizer behind my desk for me (after I use a communal tool etc.) just as a personal, preventative measure against disease. If my students want to avoid germs, they can wash their hands with soap and/or bring their own hand sanitizer.
Overall, I think hand sanitizer is great when you need to give a quick pump to elementary students on the way to lunch. . .Or, if you are a non-Art teacher or a teacher w/o a sink and you want to keep germs down. But, if you are trying to remove dirt and grime, you need soap.
4.       Buy lotion
Art is dirty and the kids do a lot of hand-washing. This leads to dry hands.  I buy two economy-sized bottles of lotion for each school year. The total cost ends up being about $6, which is a small price to pay to avoid teasing and/or complaints.  I make sure to purchase something gender-neutral with a light, un-offensive scent.  Also, you’ll have kids visit you in the morning because they forgot to put on lotion etc. etc., and it feels good to be able to help someone out who is having a bad morning. J
5.       Buy deodorant
 You will teach smelly kids; it will happen.  I think there must be something about the on-set of adolescence that makes body odor especially rank.  I’ve had kids with odors so strong they could clear the classroom. One memorable year, I had to periodically stand in the doorway to my classroom and gulp down fresh air. Sometimes, you talk to parents (gently, oh-so-gently) about body odor and they understand and are appreciative. But, more often, you talk to parents (gently, oh-so-gently) about body odor and they dismiss you by saying, “my kid wears deodorant!” (my inner dialogue: do you actually seem them put it on?) or they don’t believe the smell is their kid, “I never smell any odor at home” (my inner dialogue: omg is your sense of smell impaired?!).
Legally, you cannot give deodorant and/or soap-products to students because that can be construed as you making a judgment about that child’s home-life and can lead to litigation; I know this from experience. Instead, I have a little basket next to my hallway passes with body sprays. Students are able to take the sprays to the bathroom and/or into the hallway for a quick spray.  It becomes a non-issue because so many students indulge in the sprays because they want to stay fresh. I never make the suggestion for the kids to use the sprays, and that makes it fair as there is no singling out of students.
6.       Band-Aids are a cure for hypochondria
I’m forever getting students coming to me hissing, cringing, moaning, crying, groaning, and/or just being dramatic about paper cuts, old wounds, almost healed scratches, and minor issues that really don’t merit my (or the school nurse’s) notice. These students are usually repeat-offenders, and they are my darling, emotionally-needy, hypochondriacs. They love dramatic attention, but I often don’t have time for it. I long ago solved this issue by saying , “ohhh. Do you need a band-aid?” The answer is usually “yes.” I give them a band-aid and then they go on with their day. Mischief-Managed!  I only go through about one box of band-aids a year (but went through more when I taught elementary school).
Band-aids can cure A LOT of problems in elementary settings. I was helping the after-school teacher watch some four year olds one afternoon, when a little girl wet her pants. We only had clean boy underwear for her to put on. She was really upset and didn’t want to wear the boy underwear, and started hysterically crying once we had her all fixed up.  So, I said (knowing that she did not), “Do you have a boo-boo?”  She hiccupped, got really quiet, and pointed to a spot on her wrist and nodded. So, I put a band-aid on it, and off she ran to play with her friends. It was a physical way of saying I understood her pain, and a way for her to be special with her friends. My colleague was really impressed. Band-aids are a huge untapped resource.
7.       Incentives are important
I don’t hand out candy, stickers, or other small items. I believe learning is its own reward, but I’m not a fool. I work better when I have an incentive, and so do my students. When I taught elementary, I gave students a “smelly” on the way out the door. I made all the student line up when we finished class, and put one hand flat on top of their heads. I would take a yummy smelling chapstick (devoted to this purpose) and rub it on their hands in recognition of their good behavior.  The kids LOOOVED this! It is a wonderful incentive because it doesn’t stain hands (like stamps) and is really inexpensive. One day, years ago, one of my middle school classes saw me giving “smellies” to my elementary students and insisted I do the same for them.  It is random, but they love it too. In fact, I still use “smellies” with my 6th grade students!
8.        Lock your stuff up
Art classrooms often come with lots of lockable cabinets and doors; keep them locked when not in use. It is sad, but I don’t have to keep my stuff locked to prevent student theft; I have to keep it locked to prevent colleague theft.  Colleagues will sneak into your room when you are not present, go through your shelves, and grab what they need.  Mine do not do this anymore because 1) I keep my door locked when I’m not present and 2) I’ve trained them to know better.  But, often the teacher before you didn’t care, and/or had been worn down by requests and permitted this behavior. Since the teacher before you allowed it, everyone operates under the concept that is okay. Now, they knowit is not okay, because they know it is not okay for you to treat their classrooms in that manner.  You will have to put your foot down. I usually wait until I’ve had two-three break-ins and then I put my foot down in a polite email:
“Dear colleagues, The Art curriculum relies almost totally on consumable resources. My budget is small, and once materials are exhausted I cannot teach my subject. I understand you many need Art materials from time to time. While I never mind you asking me personally for materials, please respect I may not always be able to share.  Thank you so much for respecting the needs of the Art classroom; you are awesome!”
Try to keep most of your paper-based (the most likely to be swiped) materials in lockable cabinets. If you do not have lockable cabinets, you can (or your school) purchase little metal strips that enable locking through cabinet handles.
Also, if you are going to be absent:  Everything must be locked.  You never know what will happen with a substitute and/or what a student might tell a substitute. It is best to have everything except for the materials needed for sub-work locked up.  It is good to get into the practice of locking everything every day in the event you have an unplanned absence.
9.       Don’t waste your money on tissues
It isn’t super classy, but I keep a roll of TP in my classroom for noses; it works.  I’d rather spend my money, and parents spend their money, on things like pencils, erasers, and paper.
10.   You can never have too many pencils or too much paper. EVER.
Anytime these items are on sale, pick some up. If your school offers pencils to teachers, make sure you grab a pack.  If you have all the items on your “donate to our classroom” list, ask for pencils and paper. Those things walk off!
Bonus: How to get this stuff for free!
Check out your local grocery store, credit union, food bank, and similar institutions for back-to-school teacher give-aways.  Typically, if you show your school ID card (or proof that you are a teacher), you are eligible for all sorts of free materials on special days. Usually these items are paper, pencils, soap, hand-sanitizer, and band-aids (hey, all of those items are on this list). Also, many school districts have a “warehouse” wherein old materials and furniture is stored. These places are a treasure-trove for teachers.  I’ve gotten a lot of free paper and textile materials from my district warehouse. Never underestimate the Craigslists “free” item section; I’ve managed to grab a lot of paper and other awesome materials through this resource.  Finally, a shout-out on Facebook and/or your social media platform of choice may surprise you.  I have a small budget and have been so impressed with the friends, family, and colleagues who have bought materials to help me through the years.

24 thoughts on “10 Practical Things No One Tells You about Teaching (Art)”

  1. Bandaids, good soap, making friends with custodians, front office staff, para-professionals all great advice and so true everything you said. I have been saved by my office staff and custodians on many occasions, bandiads solve a multitude of ailments at the elementary level, I have good scrubby soap for those hands that school soap truly does not wash and the para's I work with are amazing people who as you say are a great resource about the students they work with. Para's don't always get the credit they deserve. Hope the beginning of your school year is a good one. I don't go back until the beginning of Sept. here in New Jersey. 🙂

  2. smellies! that sounds so fun! thank you for this list. i had no idea a teacher could get “free” stuff from markets and such.

  3. Interesting list. I have to say, as a high school art teacher, I disagree with many of these. I always ask parents to donate tissues. I HATE blowing my nose with toliet paper and I wouldn't expect kids to enjoy it either. I also always ask parents to donate other items that can be bought at a grocery-type store. They will bring in paper towels (the school ones are pretty lousy for cleaning), plastic wrap, light bulbs, batteries, paper bags, plastic baggies, aluminum foil, hand soap, bar soap, and hand sanitizer. This keeps me from having to purchase these things. Also, I feel like the hand sanitizer issue is an education issue. Please inform your students that sanitizer is for killing germs after they blow their nose. It is NOT for cleaning up after using oil pastels or paint! Personally, I (and MANY other students) are highly sensitive to perfume smells. I would not be able to function if I gave my students body spray to spray in my room! Please take that into consideration about the students in your classroom. They may have allergies and breathing that fake stuff is toxic. Personally, I'd rather smell body odor ALL day then to deal with the headache from smelly toxic body spray.

  4. I love your blog Amy. Please ignore grumpy teachers like Mrs. Crouch (Mrs Grouch) who clearly have too much time on their hands. It is great that teachers like you are willing to give helpful tips to others and to write blogs. Rather than leave a rude reply, Mrs Grouch could have simply chosen not to take your advice. Keep up the great work.

  5. What a wonderful article! So many fabulous suggestions that could be used in any areas of a school! I'm not an art teacher but have worked in schools for many years- some of which I spent in the front office-so I think #1 is spot on! 🙂 I will chime in though that I shared Mrs. Crouch's concern about the scented sprays. I love the idea of it but would worry about triggering asthma or allergy reactions. But the thought behind it is great- I knew a school nurse who kept baby powder on hand for the same reason and it worked out well- so maybe anyone concerned about the sprays might try powder instead. Thank you for a wonderful read!

  6. Ty for all the knd comments. Y'all are so concerned about the deodorant sprays! I'm actually very sensitive to fragrance myself. I mentioned in the post that students step into the all before spraying. And, I'm the only lass room at te end of te hallway.

  7. Hi, Artsy Amy, so refreshing to find you and your blog ~ sharing tips of the artworld and teaching. In all my years of working with a little sink and many children of all ages I found shaving cream (Buy in Bulk or @ Dollar Store) to be wonderful for cleaning hands and waiting in line to wash up. Rules be applied for eliminating a High Five and spec of soap in the eyes. No sanitizer needed for this thorough hand washing. Shaving creme also is great for cleaning tables and brushes too. You'll always get a happy volunteer for these jobs given shaving creme. (Buy Sensitive creme in the event of allergies.) Looking forward to your next news. Thank you again.

  8. I am the Kindergarten teacher and Art Expert in my school in Alberta, Canada and I love and seek out free stuff just like you. I thought there were great ideas in your write up. I use all my old (from my childhood trips) and my current hoarding (from my current adult trips) hotel soaps/body washes as free soap that kids can go through at will due to the hard to reach soap containers for K students, and frankly, poorer quality of soap. I encourage soap hand washing after any wet (non-dracula elbow caught) sneezes.coughs so I go through lots of soaps. I do put lots of my budget to kleenex and if I am sick, I buy the even more expensive menthol and lotion infused kleenex boxes for me…However, my husband told me something that makes me think…he said he always blows his nose into our toilet paper as he believes TP is made with softer kinder ingredients and the kleenex is not—though it seems to feel softer. This feeds fuel to not spending the money on kleenex, using the caretakers TP for all sneezes and little messes and is a win for your budget and our noses. Keep up the great work, I will follow you now for more great ideas.

  9. Note to self…after long enough, teachers become bitter and cynical. After 10 years, I have to monitor myself, but am (hopefully) staying positive. Use what you like on the list or none of it, sharing is how we survive! Love the “smellies” idea!

  10. Dear Amy, I agree with everything you have said. Great to see a passionate art teacher sharing her wealth of knowledge with other like minded people. I have been teaching art for nearly 20 years now and I have to say it's a job that just gets better and better. Keep up the great work. P.s Mrs Grouch should keep her negative comments to her self.Cheer Karen

  11. Thank you for bringing up the point about perfume allergies. I too am incredibly sensitive to most perfumes and body sprays, so much so that I fear I may have to ask the school to send out a notice or put up posters. I get excruciating migraines. It's not being 'grouchy' as some might be implying, it is a genuine and debilitating issue! 😦

  12. Question about the sanitizer: I find it works incredibly well to remove oil crayon, marker etc from my art tables. Why is it bad to use this? Does it hurt the tables? Just curious. I rarely use for hands, doesn't do much for messy situations

  13. Great article. If you can get a color other than yellow that works great too. We use black pencils from school specialty but I think on most

  14. If you go back & read the article again, she does state that she has her students go into the hall or to the bathroom to use the deodorant. Toxic headaches are certainly nasty & I wouldn't want one either, but please don't criticize someone who is trying to share such positive ideas.

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