Here is a 6th grade group showing off some paper mache masks a few years ago when I taught strictly middle school. 6th grade is still one of my favorite ages to teach! 

What was most challenging about the switch from being a middle school art teacher to teaching PK-12th grades?

For me, after teaching middle school for so many years, it was both kindergarten and upper level high school. I found it easy to teach grades 3-10. My younger students were a challenge as were 11th and 12th graders. You need an entirely different skill set for these ages! Some of the older high school kids were apathetic and did not want to be challenged, while a few of my youngest students had a lot of impulse and emotional control issues as well as attention span difficulties. Elementary and middle school students will only respect you if you "mean business" so to speak, but too much emphasis on structure/rules will make me lose a group of high schoolers. What "worked" with middle school absolutely kills the dynamic of a high school group and vice-versa. I am learning as I go! 

ELEMENTARY ART STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS: (Generally Kindergarten - 4th Grades)

Elementary artists are enthusiastic, joyful, eager to learn and to please, creative, energetic, and talkative. They love to help and they love all kinds of art; they are not critical of me or the class. There is less impulse/emotional control with younger students so they need more patience, repetition, and specific coaching in a task.
Extrinsic motivation is also needed in the form of consistent consequences and incentives for behavior. Also, and perhaps more importantly, routines and procedures provide much needed structure. This sense of predictability makes kids feel safe and secure. Instructions need to be clear and exact; the teacher needs to make the invisible visible for a smoothly run class.

Potential Roadblocks: (Time!)
Classroom teachers and administrators view the specials classes as break time, not a time of valuable learning. Students view specials classes as another form of recess, not a time to buckle down and work. The art teacher's leverage to expect good behavior (and studious, serious thought, planning, and reflection) is not as strong as the classroom teacher's because our opportunity to build classroom culture and student/teacher relationships is affected by time resources. Our ability to cover all standards is also limited due to time constraints.

Teacher Attitude:
The elementary art teacher's persona can quickly morph from serious and stern to warm and nurturing; the teacher must "mean business." You need a lot more energy to teach younger students and keep their attention. The teacher's language is focused on positives; we look for what the students are doing well and provide tons of feedback, authentic praise and encouragement. My favorite thing about this age group is they help me to feel validated as a teacher because they literally love everything we do in art and hardly ever find fault with me or the lesson. It is nice to be the "celebrity art teacher" on campus!


Students at this age are socially motivated, moody (hormonal!), insecure, but still enthusiastic and highly energetic. 5th-7th graders are responsive to extrinsic motivators in the form of consequences and incentives but fewer 8th/9th graders are. 8th/9th graders are more responsive to relationship building attempts much like older high school students. They still need those extrinsics, though! Structure and routine are just as important as with an elementary art classroom, whether the students admit to it or not!
Middle school kids are more likely to defy authority than elementary kids. They need a lot of reassurance that they are capable of achievement in art. Students love to manipulate hands on materials such as paint or clay rather than spend time drawing. They are generally there to have fun, although most genuinely appreciate learning to improve their art skills to make more "realistic" art, not "baby" arts and crafts.

Potential Roadblocks: 
The intrinsic value of what students do in art class is not well understood by the community at large. Art is seen as play time, creative time, or time to just mess around with materials. The rigor of making art is not perceived as real at all. Students are surprised when asked to do anything remotely "academic" in an art class; they don't understand just how academic (intellectual) art truly is.

Teacher Attitude:
The middle school art teacher's attitude needs to be serious and stern (stoic) most of the time when dealing with the group as a whole, but when dealing one-on-one the teacher is very warm and nurturing. Attempts at humor during the lesson can backfire; many students will use any and all excuses to get silly and cause the lesson to completely fall apart. Just as an elementary art teacher focuses on positive feedback, a middle school art teacher will do the same. However, the difference is that a middle school art teacher has to keep praise on the "down low," so as not to embarrass a student. If not, the paradox is that behaviors will get worse after the teacher publicly praises a student.
The best thing about teaching middle level artists is they are still enthusiastic and open like elementary kids, but they can also produce some amazing art, especially 7th - 9th grade students. To see artistic growth in a student at this age can be astounding.

HIGH SCHOOL ART STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS: (Generally 10th, 11th, 12th Grades)

At this age, students are calmer and more mature, knowledgeable in the ways of the world, but still in need of adult mentorship. Many are extremely insecure, apathetic, and plagued with anxieties of all kinds! To dispel this potentially negative atmosphere, humor is an absolute necessity when teaching high school! Students at this age need a strong teacher leader who is quick to laugh and share light stories. They are not as responsive to extrinsic motivators but ARE much more responsive to the teacher's attempts to build authentic relationships and connections. They have tremendous capability to create much more sophisticated and meaningful artwork if they can surpass the general feeling of "not being a real artist." They definitely want to learn more "grown up" techniques and improve their skills in realism. They tend to see this style as more impressive and worthy of esteem than other styles. They need us to teach the value of artistic expression of all kinds, though, not only realism. Many students will excel when given the opportunity to express their ideas through sculpture or non-objective painting rather than realism.
Most 10th-12th graders don't dare show it if they are enjoying the projects. They have to be cool and behave as if nothing matters. Once I figured this out, and how to successfully phrase academic feedback in my older high school classes it got a lot easier. The "comment sandwich" (positive, negative, positive) that always worked for my middle school kids did not go over well with my Art II/III kids. The timing for feedback was different, too; with middle school I could make suggestions all day long, but not with 11th and 12th grades. No suggestions were taken in a favorable light until I made sure to say things like, "I see that you have met your goal of ___________. The detail work is amazing and your ___________ technique is fantastic. Would you like some feedback about ways to make it even better?" 

Potential Roadblocks:
The value of the arts is not perceived as real; art is a frill, it is something you do as a hobby. Or, art is a farce. High school kids tend to view visual art as something they did when they were younger and have outgrown. High school students are also much more cool and distant than younger students. For me, it was difficult to know when a lesson "hit home" because of this aloof mask.

Teacher Attitude:
The teacher's attitude with this age group can be much more relaxed than with elementary or middle school kids. Although, there still needs to be an internal steeliness; a supremely confident and "no-nonsense" attitude. We can be "real" with older students and have wonderful discussions.
My favorite thing about teaching high school artists is that I don't have to spend so much time dealing with immature behaviors. Also, the artwork they are capable of producing is awesome to see!

Editor's note: The idea for this blog article came from an online survey done by Ann Marie-Aubin Slinkman. I completed her survey and decided to publish my responses here. In addition, a few weeks ago a respected colleague and friend asked me to write about my observations. I hope this helps anyone out there who is considering which grade level they would like most to teach!


The Helpful Art Teacher said...

Middle school: posted rules are a must. I could not have survived my 22 year without my posted rules.
High school: Nobody has rules posted. The whole behavior management thing isn’t even on a high school teacher radar.
Not to say kids never misbehave but if a high school student doesn’t want to be in your class they will cut or they will just suck it up because they need the art credit. Or they will just tune out. A middle schooler, given the same scenario, will often test you and act disruptive. There is something about posted rules that have an almost magical effect on middle schoolers. But the technique is wholly unnecessary in high school.


Yes! There simply isn't much of a need to even address the "Art Classroom Rules" in high school. I still reference these expectations on the first day, but only briefly. I just say, "Hey, guys, be respectful to each other and make sure to clean up after yourselves." That's pretty much it.
Ian Sands wrote an article about this a few years ago for The Art of Education; his one and only rule for high school is, "Don't Be a Bad Baby." At the time I read that article I was still teaching middle school and all I could think was, "Really?" Now that I teach high school, I get it.