A Day In the Life, Gripes

Confessions of An Elementary Art Teacher

I haven’t made art for myself since college.

For one, I just don’t have the time. For two, I’m not blessed with a beautiful, spacious studio space. Or any studio space for that matter. Remember the studios in college? *Sigh* Now the only time I make art is when I’m making samples for my lessons. Pretty sure that paper lizard I made the other day isn’t going to end up in a gallery any time soon.

I spend a lot of my own money. A lot.

I don’t think a weekend goes by when I’m not at a store picking something up for my classroom. I don’t think a week goes by when I’m not scrounging through my personal supplies, or recycling bin, for materials to use in my classroom. Regular classroom teachers spend a good amount of their own money on their students and their classrooms. I guarantee art teachers spend a lot more. I spend so much of my own money that I have a separate category for it when I track my expenses every month. I don’t get reimbursed for it. That $250 educator’s tax credit I get to claim? Maybe that will cover a quarter of what I spend every year.

I don’t like teaching every medium.

Especially painting. And printmaking. And don’t even get me started on chalk pastels. It has nothing to do with the mess. Okay, maybe it has a little to do with the mess, but I could teach ceramics all day long. Or sculpture. I’ve never had much interest in painting, not that I can’t do it, it just doesn’t do anything for me. I actually enjoy printmaking, but not the stuff we do in elementary school. Give me acid baths and etching any day. If I could equip my students with glue guns, packaging tape and box cutters, we’d be building cardboard structures every day. But Styrofoam prints and dry brush techniques? Ugh, no thanks. Yeah, I still teach it, but I’d prefer not to.

Teaching art isn’t fun.

There. I said it, now can you please stop asking me that? It’s not fun. Most of the time it is not fun. Sometimes it is fun. Mostly it is not fun. What with all the grading and the push for assessments and the CLT meetings and the professional development and the classes with 30+ students and the IEPs and the 504s and the parent emails and the SOLs and the PLCs and the lack of planning time and the extra duties and the SMARTR goals and the shrinking budgets and the teacher evaluations and the staff meetings and the need to be visible and the preparation for art shows and art displays and the behavior plans and the PBIS rewards and the pressure to make art fun. What? You didn’t think art teachers had to deal with this shit too? We do.

Sometimes I daydream about teaching high school art.

Once upon a time, about ten years ago, I taught high school art for about 1.25 years. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that. I don’t know if high school art teachers have to worry about SMARTR goals, or CLT meetings, or giving up their planning time to help out in the real classrooms during math, but I do know that at least I wouldn’t have to teach someone how to use scissors, or glue sticks or crayons anymore. I wouldn’t have to tie shoes or wipe noses or remind students to wash their hands after using the bathroom. I wouldn’t have to answer the question, “how much longer is art?” seventeen times in an hour. I’m not naive enough to think that all of my students in high school would actually want to be in art class, but at least there would be some who did right? At least there would be some who thought for themselves and didn’t actually copy my sample line for line, right? I don’t know. Are you a high school art teacher? Do you get to collaborate with students and actually have intelligent discussions with them? Do you get to watch students’ creativity develop and grow into unique points of view? Is it as glorious as we elementary art teachers imagine it to be? On second thought, don’t answer that.

I show up for the students.

The relationships I build with my students gets me out of bed every morning when that alarm goes off at 5:00 AM. I’m not in it for the fun of it. I’m not in it for the fame and fortune (because we all know that’s never going to happen). I don’t show up every day because I enjoy being micromanaged by the administration. I show up for the students who hug me on the way out of class. I show up for the students who tell me they love art class. I show up for the students who express excitement and pride when they’ve “drawn the best picture they’ve ever drawn!” And yeah, I show up for the students who can’t sit still in their seats, can’t refrain from blurting out, and who would rather be anywhere else but art class. I show up because sometimes teaching art is fun. I show up for the students. And that is the only reason I need.

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42 thoughts on “Confessions of An Elementary Art Teacher

  1. Amen! I have been having the exact same ponderings about high school art lately. I’ve wondered why no one has changed the phrase “going postal” to “going elementary”. I had taught in a regular classroom for 10 years before I got a job teaching art, so I was beyond thrilled. It’s strange how little things slowly change that, say, like your school bookkeeper yelling at you first thing in the morning and telling you how pissed she is (in front of your 6-year-old daughter, no less) because her grandson’s $50 under armor sweatshirt she bought has two tiny brown dots of acrylic paint that won’t wash out. Is the thrill gone, like old B.B. sang? It’s like a roller coaster ride for me. Glad to hear true words from another elementary art teacher 🙂

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    • “Going elementary.” Ha! Having taught at all three levels, I can say from experience that elementary schools are… unique. I get so frustrated when students where their good clothes to art class. You’re art day is always a Tuesday! It doesn’t change! Why would you wear your brand new white dress on a Tuesday!? I ask my students if they remember to wear sneakers on PE day, to which they reply, “yes,” so why can’t they remember not to wear their good clothes on art day? I once had a mom raise all sorts of hell over her daughter getting purple paint on her sweatshirt. The kid was in Kindergarten. Kindergarten art gets messy. Chill out.

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  2. Jill says:

    Don’t be fooled. While I would love to tell you that I have intelligent and insightful conversations with my high school art kids all day, this is not the case. Along with IEP and ETR meetings, there are conversations (and suggestions) about dress code, the constant fight about cell phones and the never-ending request for letters of recommendations (which by the way, if not fulfilled, opens up additional conversation that is sometimes very difficult and uncomfortable.
    Teaching, in general, is not for the weak-hearted. Each position is unique…something the general public does not recognize and that teacher contracts rarely absorb. But for some reason, I keep showing up each day in spite of spending my own money, having to drive all over town to accept donations from community members and writing them official thank yous for their tax write offs and the hap-hazard attempts by the majority of students to engage in their own learning with the hope that maybe, just maybe, the environment I provide might be fruitful for a child in some way. And it might have nothing to do with art.

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  3. First year Middle school art here. The students at my school are required to earn a fine art credit. There is only 2 fine art classes offered, so if band doesn’t like them, guess who does. I get complaints all the time about some who do not like art or the way I teach it. What is worse is when the other teachers judge my art like I should be better.

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    • CLG says:

      Don’t take it personally and keep believing in yourself. I teach middle school too (6th year). It is bad for other teachers to judge you or compare you to other art teachers they think are better (this has happened to me too). Don’t listen to them, they are bullies and their behavior is unprofessional.

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  4. Oh no! This blog entry has depressed me. This is my eleventh year teaching but my first year as an art teacher. I’ve been dreaming about being an art teacher for years! Now that I am one I’m like a kid in a candy store… I’m having a blast.

    I know that this honeymoon period won’t last forever. I know that (eventually) some things will grate on me. That day hasn’t come yet. I’m still loving every minute. Hopefully, I can stretch this phase out… cheers… love the blog…

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    • Lynne says:

      Kerstan, I’m in my 8th year teaching art after graduating in my 40’s. I am enjoying it more and more every year because the longer I teach, the better I get, and the better the kids get.The only time I get stressed is when I don’t have a plan and then the classroom gets out of control.Keep enjoying it, the kids feed off of our emotions! :0)

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    • Kerstan, I have been teaching art over thirty years and I STILL LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF IT. What a privilege it is to open up young minds to what they can do— To open their parents’ minds to what their children can do and to bring joy to them all. To bring an oasis of peace and creativity/exploration to the children’s day in the midst of so much testing and “stuff” is an honor. Sure it has its challenges sometimes, but everyday I am thankful to have the freedom to be as creative as I want to be…and yes, I can do that. Even in the supposed new confines of teaching, I can still run circles around any new political edict that comes down the pike because that is what we art teachers have learned to do over so many years of struggle…to conquer it all through creativity. Hang in there! John

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      • Agreed! However, I found a great lesson plan that I have used several times that tops chalk pastel with white tempera paint and the result is beautiful! The kids love it! I am a first year elementary art teacher at a private Christian school (MUCH different than both public AND high school). Before this I taught public high school art for 2 years. I love both. My kids get covered head to toe sometimes in the medium we are using, and they are in school uniform! But I haven’t had any complaints…yet! Haha here’s the link for a lesson using chalk and tempera! http://buggyandbuddy.com/ocean-scenes-using-chalk-tempera-paint/
        I was bogged down with all that was required of me at the high school level, but loved getting to form relationships with those kiddos and share life and joy with them even though art may not have been their favorite subject. Cheers to helping kids!

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    • Colleen Murphy DeSanto says:

      Try using construction paper crayons…chalk like but no dust…crayons has them and fx crayons…on dark colored paper they pop right of the paper they are so bright

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  5. All of the meetings and assessments and other endless pointless hoops we have to jump through are so frustrating. I feel like I am constantly asking myself “What if the only things I had to do for school DIRECTLY affected my students?” It is unfortunate that the state of education these days mandates that we have to constantly update what is essentially paperwork to impress our administrators yet the students do not ever see or benefit from it.

    Printmaking is the absolute worst! I am trying out new ways to get around the old “Multiple Prints of Styrofoam” system. It just doesn’t dazzle my students like I am sure it did back in the 19th century when a printing press was as impressive as a 3D printer. And I am also a big fan of clay — it is the best!

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  6. k12 says:

    started as a 7-12 art teacher, and that transitioned into a k12 position….while my preference lies with the up grades, I do enjoy all of my students….I do not have glitter any where near my art room, and when the dance teams shows up with it, the are politely asked to use that elsewhere….

    most of my frustration lies outside of the classroom, not having a counter part for PLC’s, or an admin team that has little to no clue what to expect in an art room (they just know it doesn’t look like a core area room, so something must be wrong!)…or parents that don’t understand how, when their kid doesn’t DO art, how could they still fail the class?!….budgets that ebb & flow with the moon phases…subs that took an art appreciation class in college, so they try to re-write the curriculum for a day to fit their abilities….

    all of that other stuff aside, the room/kids get me to swing my legs out of bed every morning….working on my 13th year of doing this, and I don’t regret it for a moment….besides, tomorrow I might wake up and all of my “problems” may have just cosmically corrected themselves and I will walk into a utopia of ideas and art…..which is why the sign above my room says “welcome to paradise”….everyday still is, another day in paradise….

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  7. Jbeezart says:

    High School art teacher speaking! I left my part time elementary art teaching job to work at a high school full time and there are definite pros and cons to each age level. For example, little kids were happy and excited while high school students are very cynical and unenthused. I am able to have meaningful discussions about art sometimes, but the reality is that most students are surprised that they actually have to learn content. They sit in silence as I show images, and one or two “art kids” lead the entire discussion. We also have endless responsibilities, such as being a class advisor, all of the homeroom requirements, IEPs & 504’s, study halls (snore, just give me another art class), assessment, moving toward “standards based learning”, and NEASC. I am being drained of passion and energy. When I first started teaching high school I used to say that teaching elementary art was physically exhausting (like throwing five birthday parties a day), and teaching high school is more mentally exhausting. Either way, I drop dead of exhaustion at about 8 at night.

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    • spluckygirlart says:

      You totally worded this perfectly. Throw in not so G rated comments that you are not supposed to hear, or know about. Boyfriend, Girlfriend drama. We have to write in here?? They are all entertaining, draining, exhausting but you totally do it because you love them and you totally can’t help yourself. The beautiful thing about high school art is they confide in you because, for some reason, during a nice quiet, hard working art class, kids open up and that is a neat thing to be a part of.

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    • CLG says:

      I feel similarly frustrated at my middle school. Sometimes I wonder, maybe changing schools really would help. Unfortunately, it is too big a gamble to undertake. Maybe with a lot of planning and research it would work.

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  8. Hope says:

    I taught high school art for thirteen years and loved it. This is my first year teaching middle schoo and I literally hate it!!! I think I’d rather pull my teeth out with pliers than paint with my middle schoolers!!! I made the mistake of assigning a color wheel project the third week of school. Let’s just say that all hell broke lose. I think elementary students are probably more mature than middle schoolers.

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    • Ms. Elle says:

      I, too, had all hell break loose in my first year teaching middle school. I had been teaching high school for 4 years when 6-8 grades were added to my schedule. I had rules and expectations in my classroom, but I didn’t realize how much policy control you have to have in the middle school classroom. There has to be a policy for EVERYthing and it takes training–as in training the kids. This is now the spring of my second year and after taking a Positve Schoolwide Climate class last summer, I was equipped to have more success with MS this year. In the fall when 7th grade came in with the noise level through the roof, knocking over chairs with their rambuctiousness, we all went back into the hall, I explained how they should enter the room, and we did it again. Just today I sent home an email to all 7th graders and their parents telling them how proud I was of them. I had a headache at the end of every class when they were 6th graders. After getting to know me and now with more enforced classroom policies and procedures, the kids were able to choose the medium they wanted to work with from 5 different options and get the correct paper and everyone was cleaned up with 2 minutes to spare! I almost couldn’t believe it! I got to do a lesson cap… something that just doesn’t usually happen because clean up goes to the bell, then they’re all scrambling to sit down to be dismissed (another policy). I don’t want it to sound all sunshine and roses because just 1 week ago a student in this same 7th grade class threw 2 spears of stacked markers–you know what I mean–at some other kids. Still, I was really proud of the rest of the students for giving me their attention right after I escorted the student directly across the hall to the office (love having my room across from the office). So after a “crazy” day and then a really smooth day, I am proud of them for their efforts in their projects in both kinds of environments. As for my high schoolers, I just told my 9th grade homeroom they are exhausting! They are more apathetic and can behave inappropriately, cuss, say rude things to each other, refuse to do work, sleep, refuse to participate in discussion or group work, complain about having to learn content and read and write and take quizzes… but, I still get the feel good stuff too when a student tells me they signed up for art next year because they miss it and that looking back they really liked their art class. I like having the seniors working independently in yearbook and then have the 6th graders who are super creative and imaginative with making fairy houses… “my fairy likes apple pie.” I love it all. I’m totally stressed just thinking about the end of the year art show next month, but I love it.

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  9. J says:

    I started out my career teaching elementary. For the past 15 years I’ve been teaching middle and high school art. We still have SMART goals, PLCs, PBIS, IEPs, shrinking budgets, critical thinking goals and everything else found in elementary schools. Do I have deep meaningful conversations about art with my high school students? Sometimes, but mostly I spend my energy motivating students to think, create and sometimes just do anything. High schoolers tend to think art is just a “sluff” class, where they don’t have to do anything to recieve a good grade. I miss the excitement and enthusiasm, the creativity of my elementary days. I miss the hugs. I don’t miss the wiping noses bit. I like that my older students can take care of themselves (mostly). I love when that talented young person comes along that is thinking of going into art looking for guidance.

    Truth is there is no ideal position, every age group has its advantages and disadvantages. I do love what I do however and have a hard time imagining any other career for myself.

    One thing remains a constant I still don’t like teaching clay. 😉

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  10. NO excuses!!! You have to make time to make art, or you’re no longer an artist. I have been teaching elementary art for 24 years and I have always made art! I have also taught college, while working on my masters degree, and subbed at middle school and high school too for years before that. Teaching elementary art is tough work. Everybody expects so much from you and you have hundreds of students, I have 600. You either have it or you don’t. You won’t last long if you don’t have the patience, thick skin, and ability and tenacity to keep going! I am 60 and I am just as thrilled at what I do as when I started back in 1989. Keep going!!!!

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    • CLG says:

      An art teacher should not be expected to produce and show art, even if they have a full degree in it (I do). I haven’t made art for myself since I began teaching it 6 years ago. Making and showing one’s own art should be a personal decision. There should be no expectation or pressure on art teachers to be artists.

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      • Cheryl Anne Cooney says:

        I agree, CLG, but I have found that if I DON’T make my own art, I go a bit nuts. Teaching middle schoolers is hard enough. Making my own art is an outlet for me. But, as you said, it is a personal decision. So, personally, I NEED to!

        Last school year, the local community college held an art contest for JUST art teachers. I put just one piece in, and didn’t win anything, but it was nice to see what my local peers were producing, and it gave me ideas for my students and myself.

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  11. Colleen Murphy DeSanto says:

    I taught art at all three levels…and loved the elementary level the best…I did it my last 14 years…before I retired and for 16 years before that I was a stay home mom, landscape painter that did grant work in elementary public schools without art…I loved it….For 13 of those 14 years I did art on a cart…starting with 750+ students a week and ending up with 950+ students a week the year I retired….

    Some of the secrets for sanity…if you want to get attention you teach them the first class of the year to finish this sentence “to Infinity-and _________(beyond)… Strong like Buzz lightyears in toy story…..I told them I needed them to shout it back AND freeze because I had something very important to say……It worked like a charm…..when leaving I would do the shout out…they would reply and be quiet in their seats and ready for their teacher….when I had a classroom my last year and they were all lined up the same shout out to get quiet and ready for the hall

    Next the dreaded clean up is conquered with one simple song….I would play I LIKE TO MOVE IT from the Madigacar movie….they needed to be cleaned up by songs end….I picked up any water…they returned supplies, art work to a pile or hallway to dry…I would spray the tables/desks pass out wet rags….and call out cleaned up tables/students to line up…it is magical!….I do miss teaching.

    I am coming out with my first book through Crystal Productions next year….About constructing a 3-D mask/head from a 9 x 12 sheet of oaktag….

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  12. Sandra says:

    its sad your student ask when art is over. Mine are sad when they have to leave. 95% of elementary art is fun. And exhausting. And rewarding.

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  13. Christy Ingram says:

    I did 12 years of Elementary (two schools/year) and am in my 12th year of high school art teaching. I miss the rock star status of elem. school, when kids actually shout out to you in the cafeteria, rather than the shy and hidden waves of the high school sort. I do get to make my own art now, more often at least, and I get to have amazing conversations with brilliantly blooming minds. HOWEVER, I still spend a lot of time teaching them how to use the media and materials because they didn’t have art in elementary or middle school. ANd I get a Duke’s mixture of kids who love art, want to do art, and the kids who get “PUT” in my room because they don’t have anything else to do. AND don’t get me started on the teachers who take kids out of your class to make up ‘real’ class work, or come to your room to gather supplies for their “academic” hands on activities….BUT do I love what I do. ABSO-FREAKING-LOOTLY!

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  14. Sheri says:

    I teach K4 through grade 8. Middle school is my grade of choice. I so totally get the “never teaching them how to use scissors and glue sticks again” because Kindergarten is the hardest class I have ever taught. I adore those teachers who teach the basics -now if my middle schoolers don’t know something, I will know it was because I didn’t do it. So thank you to all those elementary art teachers out there! Don’t dispair! I also spend my own money on supplies and raid my own art stash at home. I teach at a small private school where class sizes are no larger than 16, but the budget is only 10/child. This year I bought a flat screen tv to use with my Apple TV so that we could view slides and videos without searching for the one projector in the building that works with my laptop. But, honestly, I do love every kiddo…even the ones who don’t really like art and I strive to make it meaningful to them, as well as being challenging to the ones who just can’t get enough art. I do believe we have the best job in the whole school and I do love being an art teacher!

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    • kg says:

      Sheri, do you mean 10 DOLLARS PER STUDENT!? My budget has never been more than 25 – 50 cents per student if I get any $ at all. I have 1,450 students at three different schools. I am also so envious of your class sizes. The thing that is really getting to me about my job is having so many students that I can’t learn their names and certainly can’t get to know them. The most fulfilling aspect of teaching is completely missing for me. I guess I really need to find an art position at a private school!

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  15. I have been teaching art for over 30 years and I still love EVERY MINUTE OF IT. Sometimes it is extremely hard work, but the privilege of opening children to the wonders they can create is always a thrill. It is so satisfying to have parents tell me they are amazed at what their children bring home. It is rewarding to me to be able to give children an oasis of peace to create in their busy day of learning and testing. Seriously folks, I know it is hard work and the behavior is off the wall at times…but come on…would you rather be teaching something else? We, as art teachers, can still run circles around any political mandate that comes around because we ARE creative. No matter what they throw at us, we can still rise above it and do what we want and think best…if we are clever and creative enough.Think positive. I love it.

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  16. Cheryl Anne Cooney says:

    I got my degree in Art Ed when I was in my 50’s and have been teaching MIDDLE SCHOOL Art for the past 7 years (I just turned 60). Teaching “hormones with feet” is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but I still love it! I don’t move as quick as I would like, and with these kids… well…. you get my drift. As for soft pastels? My kids excelled at them because I drew right along with them, and they watched MY techniques and incorporated them into their work. Gorgeous!

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  17. CLG says:

    I agree with your post, I don’t find it negative at all. Teaching art is not always a glamorous gig. I haven’t made art since college either, but I don’t beat myself up about that. I teach at a tough urban school and much of my time is spent on discipline and not art. I feel I am a good art teacher and that the behavior problems are not due to my classroom management skills. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to make up for a lack of good parenting. I would rather spend all of my time working on art with my students. Sometimes I do feel like giving up, but I come back for my students (certainly not for school expectations and politics) and for the fact that it is my livelihood. I also spend a lot of money on my classroom. This year I plan to try to raise funds in my spare time so I can pay my bills instead.

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  18. Pingback: Happy New Year: A 2014 Summary | Art Teachers Hate Glitter

  19. Amyh says:

    I do not teach us but teach elementary art1-6 I totally get what your saying …. And feel just like u do! What u didn’t say Is how exhausting is can be ! I walk by regular teacher classroom .s and see them sitting at their desks and think have I ever done that … God NO! You pick the medium and you run around the room making sure u can prevent the next spill ! Or how about the the amount of dishes u wash … There needs to be an art Ed class that tell u … U will do thousands of dishes every day!

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  20. Have you explored Teaching for Artistic Behavior? I switched to TAB in my 19th year of teaching (last year). I have not shown a teacher made example since. I get to have conversations with my kids and help them work out individual (often wonderfully idiosyncratic) creative problems. Every single piece of work they make is totally unique.

    Also, I am sure high school kids don’t wash their hands, either. They just lie better when you ask them.

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  21. Pingback: “I don’t have time to make art.” | Art Teachers Hate Glitter

  22. Ugh, that is why I teach online. If you need ideas for your art lessons you can find them on my site and free videos on youtube. Hopefully I can give you some ease.

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