Teaching Middle School Art Series – Part 1 – Teaching for Artistic Behavior

This post is the first of a series that explores the evolution of my teaching practice since I began teaching in 2018.

Teaching art in the public school system did not seem like an attainable dream when I graduated with my bachelors in printmaking back in 2006. I knew that I would need more education to become a teacher, but that was not available in the area my future husband and I settled in. To further complicate matters, we ended up having children pretty soon after (our three kids were born in 2008, 2010 and 2011). I spent the next several years sporadically making art, all the while dreaming of using my degree and experience in a more concrete way.

I had all but given up on my dreams when I was offered an emergency art teaching position in January of 2018. I was brought on to teach introductory art and advanced painting at our local high school. Going back to work after 10 years at home was a terrifying prospect, but I immediately fell in love with teaching. Being around students as they learn about art, art techniques and expanded their ideas about what art is was a refreshing change.

Since I started in my position mid school year, I was encouraged to make the transition easier on myself by using the established curriculum. This curriculum was well developed and full of variety, but I dreamed of offering a learning experience similar to what I enjoyed in high school. My teacher had been a professional artist as well, modeling artistic behavior as he painted during our classes. He had given his students a lot of choice over assignments, provided we met certain requirements like using specific materials and doing at least one portrait. I recall feeling like my ideas were respected, and I was encouraged to learn my own artistic style. I pictured my own classroom functioning much the same way, students taking chances and having fun learning.

Looking back now, I was expecting for students to be excited for art class just because I told them it would be fun and laid back. In reality, the majority of students had preconceived notions about art and art education that were working against me. Many had never taken an art class before and some had experienced rejection in some form or another that had convinced them they “weren’t artistic.” The majority of students avoided taking risks or were completely apathetic towards art. I was shocked when students in our advanced art classes were unable to figure out how to start projects independently, much less devise their own project ideas. I had no idea how to encourage their curiosity! I found that I often had to employ threats like taking points away for participation, just to get students to complete the required number of pieces or to take their time.

By my second year of teaching, I was working on obtaining my Masters in Education, having decided I wanted to make teaching art a permanent career. I kept coming across research and discussion about the effects of increasing student choice. Many teachers found that encouraging student agency helped to minimize behavior issues and increase engagement, so I started making changes to my curriculum. I gave students more choice over assignments and started teaching them to evaluate their own work by completing self assessments.

Towards the end of the 2018-19 school year, I had discovered Teaching for Artistic Behavior (also called TAB). TAB is a teaching philosophy that is student centered. It takes the focus off of the teacher as the gatekeeper of knowledge and encourages students to learn techniques and materials at their own pace, through trial and error. TAB is often labeled choice-based art education, but in reality, TAB is much more more than that. TAB is built off of the following three sentence curriculum:

What do artists do?
The child is the artist.
The classroom is the child’s studio.
— Douglas & Jaquith, 2019

A choice based art room is not always the same as a TAB art room. The key difference being the second of the three sentences above. While many teachers offer students choices within a specific assignment, TAB gives the student tools and resources and complete control over when, how, or even if the student will choose to use them. This was a complete 180 from the traditional art education curriculum I had been engaged in previously, which aimed to guide all students to complete pre-determined projects at a set pace in a specific manner. We used complex, yet subjective rubrics to determine how students performed compared to the ideal. Students often argued about missing points because they did not agree with the teacher’s assessment.

Over the year and a half teaching art this way, I became dissatisfied with this assessment process and frustrated at the lack of curiosity and I vowed that when I began the 2019-20 school year, I would be using TAB. As it turned out, I was destined to moving across the street to the middle school. Once the initial shock of the change wore off, I embraced the ability to work with students at an even younger age. I knew that there was a lot of potential to reach students during the three years in middle school. I proudly took on the responsibility of making their experience welcoming and encouraging, knowing that there was potential for me to have a huge impact on their attitudes towards art for the rest of their lives.

As the solo art teacher at this school, I was able to build my own curriculum from the ground up. I spent the entire summer developing my plan for how I would introduce the students to art through TAB. As a philosophy more than a strict practice, TAB can be accomplished in any setting. I chose to utilize a studio center approach, splitting materials up into buffet style studio centers. In our drawing studio you can find colored pencils, markers, charcoal and pastels. In our painting studio you will find watercolors and tempera paint. I started the school year by introducing drawing materials and techniques before moving on to painting, sculpture, fiber art and clay. Having such a variety of materials accessible at any given time may sound overwhelming, but the students help to keep things organized and clean. Student engagement is often a non-issue in this environment, but classes can feel chaotic at times because of all the activity!

Assessment and grading proved to be difficult despite all of the improvements in student engagement. Middle school students are (unsurprisingly) a bit unpredictable. Some days they would be working like a well oiled machine and the next they were arguing and struggling to contain their messes. I became the teacher I hate, one who often threatened student’s grades to get them to comply. I even broke down into tears once or twice from sheer frustration. I felt like a huge failure. Why couldn’t my classroom be quiet and calm like the other teacher’s rooms? Why did students seem to behave so poorly with me that behaved well with others? I found myself stressed about these questions often for the first semester and even well into the second semester until March 17th arrived and our school shut down due to COVID.

Honestly? The first months of lockdown were a relief. I was able to reevaluate the kind of teacher I wanted to be. I was able to rest more, reassess my priorities and heal my burnout. I began making art again after nearly a year of not making a SINGLE thing. I realized how crucial art making was to my mental health and took steps to incorporate daily art making in order to preserve my sanity. In the end, my art saved me and showed me that I needed to change my teaching practice if I wanted to help students discover the same benefits.

In my next post I will detail my experiences teaching art over Zoom, talk a bit about comparison and share where my art program is heading next year.

To be continued…


Douglas, K.M. & Jaquith, D.B. (2019). Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom (TAB). [Kindle Paperwhite Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com






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