High School Mailbag: What Are the Wins and Challenges of Teaching Art?


So much happens to students during high school. As a result, we see some of the best and most difficult times in their lives. We went to social media (1, 2) to see what you had to say about teaching high school art. Abigail Bartell summed it up perfectly when asked about the best and not-so-great parts, “My students. My students.”

But in all seriousness, let’s take a peek at the highs and lows and how to use them to grow in our teaching practice.

high school art room

What’s so special about the high school years?

The four years students spend in high school are incredibly formative to their identity. A lot of “growing up” happens on the outside and inside. Our teen artists grapple with significant growth and hormone changes. They are able to think on a deeper level and be concerned with social issues. High schoolers are better able to give reasons for their decisions and discern what is right, wrong, and why.

They can make long-term plans and set goals for college, jobs, and careers. Additionally, they can learn time management and more defined work habits. High schoolers are navigating more complex relationships with factors like romance, peer pressure, and sexuality. They are branching out from their immediate families into expanding other social circles. They toe the line between adult and child and are exploring what independence means.

three self-portraits

How rewarding is it to watch a student grow up?

As stated above, a lot happens to teenagers in the four years they are in high school. We see so much physical, mental, social, and emotional maturity blossom. One of my very favorite things to have seen was all the ninth graders coming in for Freshman Orientation and noticing how tiny and timid they looked. Fast forward four years to craning my neck to look up at them in their graduation gowns with confident grins and lofty life plans. They were not my children, yet I was so proud of them.

Daisy Taylor reminisces, “Once you form those relationships, you get to see the same kids year after year and watch them grow as young people and artists! That’s my favorite part.” Emily Atkinson adds, “Watching kids become thinking adults. Especially if you have them from freshman through senior years, you really get to see them grow as humans.”

What happens when a student is a better artist than you?

One perk of teaching high school art is having high expectations for fully resolved artworks, especially from advanced students in AP or IB. Melissa Stephenson shares, “I love the level of work I can expect from my students… The greatest feeling is when they master something that dramatically improves their work and they’re so proud.”

We also get foundations classes where you get a mixed batch of students of all grade levels, skill levels, and maturity levels. While not all art products will be show-worthy works, you will find that many students will surprise you! Many students who have never taken an art class until high school will produce amazing pieces, and a newfound passion for art will be born. Jill Brunnemer Wells reflects, “Favorite: Watching kids get better over time, gaining confidence, and expressing themselves through art.”

Once in a while, you will get a student who is a better artist than you. Students with artistic gifts may be intimidating to teach! What can you possibly offer them? Fortunately, you can still teach them so much. Just because a student can whip out a jaw-dropping drawing out of nowhere doesn’t mean they understand art history, composition, backgrounds, or the terminology required to speak about their work.

black and white painting of body

What is your favorite class to teach?

Tracey Dean proclaims, “Teaching AP Art History!!!” I couldn’t agree more. Art History was my all-time favorite course to teach. It was so invigorating to get students fired up when looking at, writing about, and talking about art. It is also rewarding to watch students have those “lightbulb moments” as they make connections between other content areas and what they are learning in art history. This is the best class to ingrain an authentic appreciation for visual art while exercising critical thinking skills.

art history book stack

How do you teach a class of all teen boys?

This is rare but does happen more at the high school level. Jan T. Fontenot said that teaching all boys is hard due to “… getting them to slow down and not finish in one class period.” Boys can tend to rush through their work for many reasons. They may be trying to show off. They may want time to goof off at the end of class to use their extra spatial skills. Or, they may have run out of concentration due to different brain makeup and development. There is a time to focus on why craftsmanship is important, but it can also be fun to take advantage of these differences.

Two ways to embrace this competitive spirit and need for speed are to:

  1. Host design challenges and contests.
  2. Facilitate short projects.

According to Steven Stosny, author, professor, and consultant, teen boys need the following three things:

  1. Structure.
    Due to brain development, teens are more impulsive. They are not prepared to make strong judgment calls or foresee consequences. Routine in the art room is key to fostering positive and productive behaviors. It is also essential to go one step further and show students that their role in your room’s routines is important to the overall health and success of the class. It creates buy-in and a sense of belonging.
  2. Brief and specific instructions.
    Stosny says that, in general, boys do not comprehend what they hear as efficiently as girls. They can tend to tune us out if they get one hint of feeling bored. In order to maximize their listening capacity, keep your instructions chunked, concise, and specific. Check for understanding with eye contact, individual check-ins (when possible), and having them repeat information back before continuing with more content.
  3. Correlation between power and responsibility.
    You may never have guessed this, but teenage boys often feel powerless. This can negatively impact their impulsivity; if they think they and their choices don’t matter, they are more likely to behave recklessly. Be consistent with your classroom consequences and follow through. Clearly discuss with them why they received a consequence and how it will affect them and their work. Show them the positives they can get for behaving responsibly, and make it a point to affirm them when they hit the mark!

What are some ways to build positive rapport with high schoolers?

Morningstar McQuiston Williams reflected on the best part of teaching high school, “Many students only come to school for art class,” and they “literally have to kick them out.” Likewise, Gabby Fishman shared, “My students are some of my favorite humans.” As the year progresses, “art class becomes more therapeutic… and kids start leaning [on] each other and communicating much more openly.”

But how do you get to a point where your room is a student favorite?

The high school years are a time for adolescents to rebel against their parents. They often look for a safe and trusted adult they can be real with. Psychologist, Carl Pickhardt, explains that rebellion is often thought to be an act of independence. In fact, it is an act of dependence because it pushes an adolescent’s behavior to be contingent on and in opposition to what the parent wants. The solution is to create opportunities where students can get a taste of independence in a responsible and respectful way. Art is the perfect place for our teen students to do this.

Here are some ways the art room can encourage independence and build rapport:

mixed media artwork

How do you deal with apathy?

The terms “apathy” and “indifference” are too common in high school teacher circles. But what is the difference between the two? According to Merriam-Webster, there is a lot of overlap. Apathy is a lack of passion, whereas indifference is a lack of interest. Either way, both are a concern! Jill Brunnemer Wells shared that the most challenging part of the job is “trying to motivate the unmotivated.” Melissa Stephenson said, “… where everyone demands an A for little to no work, is the worst.”

So how do we go about reversing apathy and indifference? The better question is, how can we start strong and build rapport? If you are asking the second question, see the above section! Right or not, students are more likely to do things for you because they like you. And they will like you if they know you care about them and value them.

If they are still apathetic and indifferent towards art, even with positive relationships, it’s okay. They listen to you more than they let on. I have had my fair share of students who did not turn in work. I have been surprised by how many of them have reached out to me after graduation to tell me how much they enjoyed my class and how much they learned. Grades are important, but they aren’t the only indicator of learning.

Speaking of grades, are there any grading hacks?

We can relate to Jen Wassmer when she says, “Best part [is] teaching and helping students while they work. Worst part [is] grading!” Lighten your load and set expectations early on that students will self- and peer-assess. Come up with a generic rubric that covers the basics. (A good rubric for this is our FLEX Plug n‘ Play Rubric.) After instruction, require students to come up with the specific criteria for each project. Students will be familiar with the rubric and grading components because they contributed to its development. Allow students to self- or peer-assess. Then, all you have to do is double-check to see if everything looks accurate and honest.

whiteboard with grading criteria

How do you meet everyone’s needs when you have classes of mixed grades, abilities, interests, experiences, and more?

This is a struggle at all levels, but with high school, there is the added layer of multiple ages and grades in one class. You can have a foundations course with 13-year-old freshmen and 20-year-old seniors who have been held back. That is quite a range of developmental milestones, maturity levels, physical differences, and experience bases. Not to mention all of the other variables such as IEPs, 504 plans, and WIDA levels, just to name a few.

The goal should be to make learning in the art room possible for all artists. When you start with that frame of mind, it’s an easier and more efficient use of time, energy, and resources.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you plan:

  1. Start with a simple, clear objective.
  2. Provide the essential steps to complete the assignment.
  3. Use images and words to convey information.
  4. Be flexible with how students achieve the objective.

How do you deal with cell phones?

The resounding question was what to do with cell phones and personal electronic devices. These items can be extremely beneficial to learning. However, they can also serve as a distraction. What are best practices when it comes to cell phone use in the art room?

The first thing to follow is your district and school’s policies. Understand when students are allowed to use devices and if you are allowed to take them away. Then, adhere to those policies in your classroom.

We assume students know how to use technology. While navigating technology comes intuitively for our students, they don’t know how to use it judiciously. Take the time to teach students how to be responsible digital citizens and how to manage screen time in the art room. After that, you can decide how much you want to embrace cell phones in your curriculum.

zentangle artwork

Ang Lawrenson summed it up the best, “You will laugh and smile for 50% of your day… You’re around art all day.” There is nothing better than teaching art and talking to high schoolers. Our teen artists have so many intricate layers, and it’s very rewarding to unpeel them in candid conversations and through authentic artmaking. You have the immense opportunity to reinforce skills, teach new ones, instill an appreciation for art, and help them navigate how to process the hard stuff in life through artmaking. And despite all the challenges of teaching teenagers, you will build memories they will remember forever and cultivate relationships that will surprise you one day.

What are your favorite and most challenging parts of teaching high school art?

What questions do you still have about high school artists?


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