How to be an Effective Art Teacher

RISD Pre-College, Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

I had fun writing yesterday’s post  How to be a good art student, so I couldn’t help but wonder about what this list would be.  Now that I’ve been on both sides, I like to think that I have a well rounded perspective that I can offer to others.

1) Be consistent and reliable.
Predictability can be a great attribute if used well, when not used well it becomes monotony.   Instill an iron clad sense of confidence in your students that if you say it, it will be done.   You have to establish a firm credibility from the very first day of class and stick with it.

2) You can always get nicer, but you can’t get tougher.
A friend of mine who is also a teacher jokes that on the first day of class, she likes to choose an outfit that communicates “I’m approachable, but DON’T MESS WITH ME.” There is however, some truth in this.

It’s confusing to students if you start out the class as a big softie and then inexplicably transform into a strict teacher by midterm. I was absolutely petrified by one RISD teacher on the first day of class, only to realize by the end of the semester what how incredibly sweet person she really was. She was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

Final Crit

3) Be visibly passionate about what you do.
If you’re not excited, there’s no chance your students will be. Someone once told me that the most wonderful thing in the world is seeing someone do something that they love really well, and I couldn’t agree more.

4) Admit your mistakes.
If you make a mistake, admit it openly.  If you don’t know the answer, then offer to look it up and get back to the student.  When I was a freshman, I once asked a teacher a technical question, she said “I don’t know” and then walked away in the other direction. Quite possibly the lamest response I could have thought of.

5) Always keep your cool.
I once had a student forcefully yell at me in front of the entire class during a group critique. I said in the calmest voice I could “You and I will have a conversation about this later, let’s move on.”  An emotional response from me would have been unprofessional and would only have had negative results for everyone in the room.

6) Emphasize face to face interactions.
When I first started teaching many years ago, I used email frequently to communicate- what a huge mistake that was. I learned quickly that there  is just too high a risk of things being misinterpreted in an email.  I once got a nearly 5 paragraph email from a student who went on and on about what a terrible person I was, how I knew nothing about them, etc. etc.

I told her that we needed to have a face to face conversation to discuss her concerns. We sat down, and miraculously she had nothing to say and everything was all of a sudden fine. Having face to face conversations keeps many of us in check, and so I now insist on speaking in person with my students and to keep email interactions to very cut and dry “yes or no” questions.

Final Crit

7) Put practice into personal perspective.
Everyone loves a good story.  One of my favorite stories that I like to tell is about an assignment I gave a few years ago that was called “Layers”. I walked into the classroom the morning of the group critique and saw that one student had done a drawing of chickens and eggs.

I thought to myself “what the hell is he thinking?!?”.  When it came time for him to present his drawing, he said “Well Clara, the assignment was ‘layers’, so I looked up the definition of ‘layer’ in the dictionary, and a ‘layer’ is a chicken that lays eggs.  So I drew ‘layers.'”

8) Maintain delicate balances.
I’ve always felt strongly that to be an effective teacher one must embody a number of contradictions: tough but loving, structured but flexible, serious but funny, etc. etc. Even the smallest gestures can demonstrate that there are multiple sides to your teaching.

9) Be Human.
Express and demonstrate your vulnerability.  Acknowledge that you’ve faced the same hurdles, struggles, experiences that your students are going through, it makes everything more real and palpable for your students.

If you enjoyed this post, you might consider purchasing my book, “Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life,” which expands further on the themes in this post. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.

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4 thoughts on “How to be an Effective Art Teacher

  1. That’s perfect. I experienced some.well, i think im in a right path. But need a lot of effort to be more effective. I am happy on my first day in class ,all are very attentive, and during midterm ,i can identify their work without lookibg tbeir names on plates.

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