We know how important it is to be flexible in the classroom, to respond and react to the students’ needs and abilities, and be prepared to change our course of action. But this flexibility can work in direct opposition to our own goals as teachers. When we create our classes we structure them around the ideal. What we hope to accomplish, what we hope the students will learn. Classroom management becomes a balancing act with student expectations on one side and our own on the other.
Personally, I struggle with this balance at times. Most importantly, I want the students to enjoy their class time and feel they are in a safe space to exercise their creativity. If this was the only goal, though, I could throw a handful of crayons and markers on the table and let them go crazy.
My classes tend to be technique based and introductory. I pay close attention to make sure the lessons are scaffolded, progressing logically step by step. This is especially important to me as I usually work with middle schoolers, and I want my classes to provide basic skills they can take with them into the future. This system has worked well for me in the past. I have managed to follow my trajectory, while making adjustments to keep the students engaged.
But then spring term happened. It was truly an exercise in flexibility.
My assistant and I went from small things like rearranging the tables and assigning seats, to big things like changing projects and dropping learning tools. How do you please everyone? Where does the line get drawn? How flexible can you be before your class turns into something you don’t recognize? How far do we bend until the entire thing breaks? What follows are the expectations, the reality, and what I tried to do to meet the students’ needs while maintaining a learning environment.
Expectation: Every class starting with a question on the board to answer. This way when we talked about the days lesson they already had some thoughts down. It also gave them something to do while they waited for the rest of the class to arrive.
Reality: Most students were not interested in writing.
Resolution: Dropped the idea after day 3. If they weren’t getting anything out of it, I wasn’t going to force them to. And I get it, they spent all day in school.
Reality: Talking over the teachers, invading personal space, disrespectful tone towards other students.
Resolution: Taking time out of the day to go over a new class agreement. This consisted of a page about how to respect each other. In retrospect, I should have gone over it every single day until it stuck no matter how bored they got. But I hated that the students who behaved themselves were losing class time.
Expectation: A collaborative mosaic of colored and torn paper. I was really excited about this project.
Reality: This could never happen with my sanity intact.
Resolution: We dropped the lesson and spent more time on their final project.
Expectation: Teacher demos of techniques.
Reality: Lack of attention. No surprise, this is a frequent issue in the classroom. We’ve all been there.
Resolution: Shorter demos. Splitting class in half. Having optional demos. Frustration. Resignation. More one on one time.
Expectation: Cleaning in an organized manner.
Reality: For all I know they were playing tag.
Resolution: We tried having tables clean up one by one, calling individuals to clean one by one, giving them more time, consistently having materials in the same place to put away. Our mantra was “if you aren’t cleaning, you should be sitting”. On the last day we gave them a half hour to clean and somehow they took the entire time. This is watercolor paint. It is already mostly water. I think this might have been an elaborate prank.
Expectation: Color mixing.
Reality: Repeating numerous times a day which two colors make black (the most sought after color).
Resolution: No, I never gave them a tube of black paint. I was sticking with this one.
Expectation: Tonal self portraits with complementary colors in order to experiment with contrast and learn to make neutrals.
Reality: In the previous class we had done still life paintings and many students grew frustrated trying to draw bowls. Self portraits were out.
Resolution: We printed out black and white images of their favorite celebrities that I allowed them to trace. This was actually the most successful day. The pressure was off about drawing and it was subject matter they cared about. Did they all use complementary colors? Of course not, but whatever. I’m not a monster.
Student expectation: Free painting. I had asked them at one point to write down what they would like to learn or do in class. I only had a few responses (remember, they didn’t like writing) but free painting was a request.
Reality: Messes. Without structure they didn’t know what to paint after all. There were a lot of muddy brown palettes.
Resolution: Resisting the urge to say “I told you so.” It was the last day. All I could do was hope no one fell off their chair. Speaking of…
Reality: Numerous instances of falling off chairs.
Resolution: Seatbelts? I don’t think I could say “sit down” any more often than I already did. Besides, sitting seemed to be the problem.
Expectation: Pixellated paintings of their choice of subject matter for a final project. This was meant to let them experiment with creating a large range of colors. Since the technique was fixed, I wanted to be sure to be flexible about subject matter.
Reality: Some students complained about this project the moment they learned about it on day one.
Resolution: I didn’t change the project. I am good at thinking on the fly, but not THAT good. Everything we did was leading up to this. Some of the students took to it happily and others flailed. I allowed students to give up if they wanted, but did push some of them who were creating something really interesting. Here is the problem- what I find interesting and beautiful as an art teacher, the student may see as a frustrating mess. They just aren’t there yet. By this point in the class I think I had lost my balance.
In the end we dropped the idea of a final project and students chose their most successful work to show. One student had reluctantly spent a lot of time on a pixellated painting that turned out amazing. She had also done a painting in 15 minutes at the end of class that she liked better and wanted to put in the student show. I resisted. Her other work took so much time. Plus it demonstrated that she actually learned something.
Sometimes, it is difficult to be flexible when reality is so out of line with our expectations. But this isn’t about me. This is about them. Whenever I wanted to ask “Do you know the amount of thought, and care, and time I have put into this class?” that was my ego talking. They DESERVE my thought, and care, and time. It is why I teach. So her 15 minute painting is in the show. It looks really good.
Lyndsay is a botanical artist working in watercolor and colored pencil. She has been affiliated with Marwen since 2010.