In response to my article “Being a Credible Teacher is Like Having a Good Wine Label,” our colleague Emily Stuver, an art teacher, asked this question:
I'm wondering about your opinion on something this post brings up for me. In the art teacher world (especially mine where I teach students with learning differences), there's a debate about how much of my personal ability to share with students. I realize this is different than teaching ability, but humor me here.
One side says only put up the examples that other students have done or just the mere basics so that students won't take one look at a project and give up because they can't fathom being able to compare to what they see.
On the other hand, I notice my middle school students taking me more seriously when there is an “ooh ah wow” factor in an example that I've made. I tend to do an assignment to work out the kinks before presenting it to my students, and occasionally I will flash it to students as a “this is where we are going with this project” and tuck it away quickly.
Also, my students need very explicit instruction so visual step cards and examples are important. But: the comparison beast is real.
Thanks for helping us think our way through this teaching journey!
Before I touch on the connections I see between secondary student motivation and Emily's remarks, let me say a big thank you to her. In sending this message, she has done us a great favor. I welcome any messages from colleagues like this. All you need to do is respond to the emails I send to folks on my newsletter list. (And if you are reading this in your inbox, you can just hit reply and I'll get it.)
So should teachers show their own work to students?
Spoiler alert: I answer with an emphatic YES. However, certain conditions must be cultivated for this method not to backfire.
First, as Emily says, for many students the comparison beast is real. However, I think peer-to-peer comparison is far deadlier to student motivation than student-to-teacher comparison. Most middle school students will not be rattled to find that their art teacher is a better artist than them; it will not change their perception of themselves as a student artist.
But when a student fancies themselves a student artist and then discerns at the completion of a project that their piece is inferior to many of their peers, this can be quite rattling. It can act just like a ravenous beast, devouring the student's sense of self as an artist. This undermines Belonging, one of the Five Key Beliefs beneath motivated learning.
The solution to this is crafting a class culture where art is an infinite game of personal improvement versus a finite game of competition. When I say this kind of thing to a group of teachers, some nod their heads knowingly but some scratch their heads and say, “Okay, great. How do I do that?”
And while it takes a book to answer that question well (mine comes out in April; you can pre-order here), the short of it is that you must at least speak to the culture you're trying to make. You are a signal-sender. You must be relentless in sending explicit cultural signals. You've got to emphasize that the class is about moving toward mastery — with toward being a key word there.
And in those moments when you share your own work — in Emily's art classes, her art; in my classes, my writing — keep a few things in mind:
- I like to joke with my students about how I am old compared to them; I've practiced for thousands more hours than them.
- I like to tell my students that it's my job to make clear the unclear, and it's their job to apply what they are learning.
- It's very powerful to create work in front of students — not at length, as this can be boring, but for 3-4 minute intervals, talking through as you work the barriers you're having to overcome, the decisions you're making.
When done well, showing your own work to students does exactly what Emily sees in her classroom:
- It sends an “ooh ah wow” signal of Credibility (the most foundational of the Five Key Beliefs).
- It makes clear the unclear (this is critical for the Effort and Efficacy beliefs, especially for secondary students).
So, Emily — I'd encourage you in the future to double down on your culture building efforts, which are clearly at work in your practice, and to do more than flash your work to students. Talk them through it. Use your ongoing development as an artist as a teaching tool. Lean in to what you're good at.
And of course, enjoy the heck out of all of it.
Teaching right beside you,
Leave a Reply