How do you create an environment for student success?  

This was a question posed to me for a summer online class I happen to be taking at The Art of Education website. Required reading for the course is the book, Dream Class, by Michael Linsin, which I ordered but have not received yet, and I decided to jot down a few of my ideas before reading Mr. Linsin's. I also ordered his new book, Classroom Management for Art, Music, and P.E. Teachers. After I read the books I will make note of the golden nuggets of wisdom Mr. Linsin teaches me - I am always on the lookout for new strategies and ideas! I am so grateful to the folks at TheArtofEd for providing so many fantastic resources for art teachers!

Here is my opinion from a middle school standpoint:

1. Make it a goal to teach students to be respectful, resourceful, and responsible before trying to teach any content. I would say this is the "Number One Rule" of classroom management - if the kids won't listen and are being disrespectful to you or their peers, they simply can not learn. They are not only sabotaging their own right to an education, they are also sabotaging the other students' right to learn. Who would you rather teach: a student with an IQ of 90 who is respectful, responsible, and resourceful, or a student with an IQ of 165 who has none of these character traits? 

2. Hold kids accountable for their actions. Say what you mean and mean what you say. The teacher is  the authority in the classroom, and it is his/her job to maintain a level of calm consistency and structure, creating a balance of strict, developmentally appropriate boundaries while at the same time being kind and approachable. Doug Lemov calls this concept, "warm-strict" in his book, Teach Like a Champion. Remain unemotional when correcting a student, but communicate to him/her that you care too much to allow them to behave poorly. Avoid any kind of power struggle with kids, make it a rule to refuse to argue. State your direction and wait for compliance, repeat if necessary, and if necessary provide a consequence for the student's noncompliance. Don't allow the student to create a show for the rest of the class. Ask him or her to go to the hallway, finish your instruction for the class, and then go deal with the kid. Holding the students accountable is an act of love and mercy - you are not being "mean" regardless of what the students might say! They will respect you for it, and if they don't appreciate it at the time they will when they get a little older! Finally, use non-verbal cues as much as possible to re-direct misbehaving students. A glance or warning "glare," a hand motion, moving nearby, or raising one hand in the air to get their attention is far more effective than yelling.

3. Give students some ownership in their work: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," according to Steven Covey in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If kids are intrinsically motivated because the teacher has made the effort to find out their interests and learning styles, and has created curriculum to meet their needs, they will be much more likely to experience success. I am not saying to just give the kids some art supplies and tell them to, "Create something!" That would just create chaos. I am saying that the kids need to make choices and have opportunities to create personal, original, artwork while simultaneously building techniques and skills with art media.

4. Create a positive environment where "good" behavior, such as kindness, hard work, creativity, responsibility, etc. is acknowledged, celebrated, and highly valued. Reward systems are still being debated, so I am not saying to pass out prizes to every kid. What I do strongly believe in is noticing when the kids do well and praising them for it. In my experience, some groups of kids have not had enough training in "good" behavior at home and they arrive in my classroom full of mischief. I have created "token economies" with these tough groups, often underprivileged and/or at-risk students, by awarding "tickets" for good behavior, which the kid writes his/her name on and puts into a jar. At the end of the week I pull one ticket out and give that kid a prize. I have found that the students don't really care about the prize, but what they do value is my positive attention and the fact that I NOTICED them doing well.

5. Be patient with your students, sometimes it helps to have other students explain the concepts in "student speak" - don't be too quick to judge that a kid wasn't listening.  Understand that kids often don't quite follow your line of thought, or your fabulous painting demonstration, or your words. Everyone is different and many times teachers assume that kids know stuff that they just don't have a clue about! S/he may have been intently listening but just didn't understand! It is okay to re-teach a concept, to go to each individual table to re-do the demonstration, or to try re-phrasing your words. Communication is such a funny thing!

6. Have an organized classroom and lesson structure with very clear goals and objectives. Know why you are teaching a concept and what good it will do for your students. Can you tell them what's in it for them? How does it relate to their lives? Clearly communicate the goals and expectations to the kids, "By the end of class today you will have learned how to create an optical illusion by using 3 different shading techniques!" Break up the lesson into easy-to-follow steps and demonstrate each step. Then, have one of the students demonstrate it, too! Give feedback to the kids quickly - sometimes I walk around the room after teaching a technique and stamp their practice papers with a "You did it!" stamper. (Even the 8th graders love the stamps.) Also, provide opportunities for the kids to do self-assessments and reflections about their growth in various skills or techniques. Getting them to think about and decide how well they did is a great learning experience! Finally, make the invisible visible - write out your project assessments in the form of rubrics or checklists so the kids understand how they are being evaluated.

Upon further reflection, I feel I must add one more to this basic list of things that help to create an environment for student success: creating an environment where it is OKAY TO FAIL the first time you try something. This may seem contradictory, but "the road to success is paved with failure!" If students are too afraid to fail, they will never step out and take a risk. I tell my students that they will not necessarily like everything they create in art class, and that is okay! I want my classroom environment to be such that the kids are perseverant to solve problems, not giving up at the first sign of "failure." It is such an important life skill to have!

 Disclaimer - these are a set of ideas about being proactive in teaching based on my classroom experience as well as various education authors. I absolutely believe that many times there are circumstances in the classroom that are beyond any teacher's control, especially when serving at-risk populations or in environments where those in administration fail to provide effective leadership in a school. Sometimes, regardless of the prevailing theories about teacher responsibility, the teacher is not to be blamed for out of control students.


The water bearer said...


I need help! I have read your blog and it gave me some great pointers, however I am still really struggling with my year 6 art class. I am teaching primary (elementary) in Australia. We take our art in the same room as all the other subjects (maths, english etc). There is no sink or proper art tray for materials, the room is carpeted, and the kids have to use their desks to complete art works.

I am really finding it hard to set up and pack down as these kids are a very challenging class behaviourally, and seem to have no training in using mediums, so they get frustrated and give up on their works. I also find myself asking the kids to listen up for most of the lesson, as they get so rowdy when the materials come out. Added to this I have 3 non-Enlish speakers and an autistic boy in my class who need extra assistance!

Any tips??????

Rebekah x


It sounds like you have quite a challenge on your hands! I have experienced several classes like these in my career, mostly 7th graders, age 12-13. Does the year 6 art class you refer to have students aged 11-12 years?
If so, are they the oldest kids in the school? (This may be part of the issue.)
My number one bit of advice to you is this: make sure you don't take any of their behavior personally! Stay calm and joyful, look for what they are doing well and acknowledge that. At the same time you are focusing on the positive, absolutely follow your classroom management plan to the letter. Hold the kids accountable but do it in a way that is calm and matter-of-fact. If you find yourself dreading that class and getting really angry at them you are sabotaging your chances at success!
One "secret weapon" I have when dealing with this type of challenging group is the "ticket system" - I have little slips of colored paper big enough for the kid to write his name on that are given when the student is doing what s/he is supposed to be doing. That could be even just be sitting quietly during instruction or at the beginning of class! This forces me to look for positive things, and it is a non-public way for me to communicate to the students that I noticed their good behavior. I just place the "ticket" on the desk and the student writes his/her name on it. They can then put the ticket into a jar, and at the end of the week I draw one name for a small prize. I have found that this simple system can change the room environment almost magically! The kids don't seem to really care too much about the prize, but they do care that I am giving them positive feedback!
I will say, too, that the best classroom management resource I have found is Michael Linsin's smartclassroommanagement.com - he says that any time the students are not "giving you what you want" to STOP everything and reteach the classroom management plan. You are, after all, teaching art! That is a reward in and of itself!
I wish you luck, and feel free to contact me with more questions!


Please email me with more specifics about your situation and I will contact my team of teachers so we can help you better. Are you a new teacher? What kind of administrative support do you have? Do you have any help from the special education teachers?
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful insight. I had an issue with coming from a small private Christian school to a huge inner city school with 650 students, next year I'll have 1200 students. In my old school I could do so much creative work and get to know my students. Now I feel so bogged down with documenting discipline think sheets,and keeping them from fighting with each other. They find enjoyment in degrading one another, and purposefully tearing up their art supplies to throw at each other. I have been told by them on several occasions that they hate me and my race. I have been cursed out, told I am mean, and stolen from. My administrators say I am too nice to them, I have interesting lessons but am not consistent or firm enough, I don't enforce consequences consistently, I have also been warned for having more office referrals than any of the other elective teachers-like. Every time I ask for help from coaches, or administration they say, be more firm. Whenever I am more firm the students ask me what happened to you? You used to be a nice teacher?
I really liked what you suggested about not taking it personally but when they come in the room rolling their eyes before I can even smile at them and say good morning it really does effect me. I want next year to be better...any ideas?


Hi, Anonymous!
It can be really tough to firmly enforce consequences, especially when the students are still getting used to you. My experience is with middle school, and they can test boundaries, for sure! I have found that the key to being consistent is to teach the kids that the rules are there to protect them and their right to learn. When I hold them accountable, it is because I love them and I want them to be successful. The rules are a good thing - we don't provide consequences to make the kids miserable at all, we provide consequences to keep them safe. If you are writing the kids up more than any other teacher, either your standards are higher than the others or there could be a lack of effective consequences within your classroom. Are you providing any kind of classroom consequence (calling parents, isolating/time-out, sentence or essay writing, etc.)? Kids will say all kinds of things to wiggle out of trouble - they can be pretty manipulative!
I have a set of classroom rules and consequences that are taught at the beginning and middle of each school year: they are posted in 2 places in the room...this is a link to my classroom blog - scroll down to see the rules and consequences: http://welcometohmsart.blogspot.com/p/art-classroom-rules-consequences-art.html
Good luck!