10 Ways You Can Improve Your Class Culture TODAY

class culture, students printing, typography, linocut
Students printing typography in a class of mine in Brooklyn, NY.


What is class culture?

Classroom Culture is the pitch and timbre of your teaching over time with a group of students. It is the way in which people feel they can fit in. Is your class a place where there is a shared belief that talent can be cultivated? Or is it a place where people assume that you have only what you are born with and that’s that? How do the students know to treat each other? How do they know they will be treated by you? So class culture is the framework upon which all relationships in your class are built: between people and between people and their work.

  • The overall key is to give people a sense of belonging by orienting them to the lay of the land, then let them learn how they explore this new territory.
  • These tips are geared towards a wide swath of ages, but of course, they are necessarily vague. Let me know if you have tips for specific populations in the comments.
  • This is an overview: I will break these out into individual articles over time as each one actually is a goldmine of ideas and thinking.

ONE: Introduce yourself and meet your students as people.

  • What is your connection to your craft?
  • Why is it important to you to teach what you teach?
  • What is the one thing you hope your students learn?
  • Ask your students what their names are and learn them
    • I have students make name tags, take a picture, and flash card them until I learn the whole class.

TWO: Walk your class through the learning ahead of them. Chart the world they are entering and what you plan to teach them.

  • Set up the relationship from the beginning.
    • A syllabus is a wonderful way to create a contract for this relationship.
      • Objectives
      • Lessons
      • Dates
      • Policies

THREE: Encourage your students to form a culture you can guide openly.

  • Ask your students why they are taking your class, then encourage discussion within the group. It will add so much and can give you more ways to guide the group.
  • Suggest some ways other artists measure success so they can start to think about how they will mark progress.
  • Let them grapple with things in front of you, they are learning how to transfer the skills outing the world!

FOUR: Explain your way of teaching fully.

  • If you have a materials list, consider making a video about what you chose the particular items and why.
  • Speak to how you encounter and study your medium. This is a huge help to beginners and creates trust with more experienced art students.
  • Be ready to talk about why you teach what you teach and get.

FIVE: Give your students context of the craft and discipline you teach.

  • What makes an excellent practitioner?
  • What are the struggles in the field today?
  • What is the history of the practice?

SIX: Help students set their own goals.

  • Once you know what a student hopes to achieve, you have a huge teaching opportunity.
  • Parse out the work that would need to be done with the student.
  • Help him/her build those evaluative skills to strategize, critique, and test their own work.

SEVEN: Admit you do not know everything (model life-long learning).

  • Be responsive over time.
  • Leave the ego at home. We are all of us beginners at something at all times!
  • Admit whenever you do not have an answer, then openly learn the answer in front of your class.

EIGHT: Speak to each student every class period.

  • Eye to eye check in each class: are you learning?
  • Learn the way each student learns in front of you over time.

NINE: Recap/reassess goals on a regular basis.

  • Check in and make sure the class is moving in the right direction.
  • Check each student and see how they are progressing and how they are evaluating themselves.

TEN: Become a resource!

  • Answer those emails and calls.
  • Write recommendation letters.
  • Network with your students in mind.

You are an art teacher. You are already someone with a skill set to which most of the population does not have training or exposure. If you can welcome your students into your teaching with care and compassion, you can make art itself more welcoming and accessible. Classroom culture is one way you can build community and extend the arts into communities which might otherwise be less willing or able to meet you halfway.

Professional Cultivation as a Framework for Staff Success, Part One

One of my wonderful staff members, tolerating my needing an image.

My coordinator is leaving! My coordinator, the woman who knows every nook and cranny of the operation and who made me so welcome and supported my shaky first month? Leaving!! She’s leaving on good terms, and I am gearing up to run the school using my processes alone. It’s a bit frightening in some respects, but I have to say I am ready to rework the department. The distribution of work needs to be rebalanced; my ideas can roll out and become implemented. It’s time for a reorg!

Developing Paths into the Organization

When I began working in the summer, I accepted the opportunity to lead not only the School staff (my coordinator and registrar) but the Front Desk staff as well (five customer service associates). The first thing I did was interview each person informally and find out what they hoped to get out of working for the Art Center. One person is a dedicated ceramicist, so I immediately asked her to study the Ceramics Department and suss out some issues I saw in the kiln room. Another person is pursuing a degree in Museum Professions, so I went to the Exhibitions Department and made sure she was given a chance to work for them.

Not everyone was into a long-term plan. As the months went on, I discovered a couple of folks were ready to move on, but I found a new crew member right in front of me. The Camp Manager who had rocked the casbah all through summer wanted a more permanent position. I brought her on and once again asked her for her five-year plan. She wants to learn about curation, so now she runs all of the School’s offsite exhibits. My latest hire came in through volunteering, then teaching, and now could rise again: she is formulating her vision for the next five years but has shown such a gift for administrative tasks I am working to have her develop processes for teachers, students, and staff.

The Siloed Past

I was surprised to find that previously, the front desk crew had not been tapped at all for their obvious talents. Through a succession of management changes over several years, the entire organization had become pretty siloed. I found this so easily crumbled: I simply talked to everyone in the place and got them excited about the work my crew was doing; I am lucky to have landed in a workplace filled with some genuinely beautiful, collaborative people. My whole (rather obvious) idea was to give my crew the small opportunities floating around. Since I knew what each person wanted to make his/her “concentration,” I could channel the same person towards those tasks and happenings and together, we could chart paths into the organization. Each member of my staff now holds a specific bit of value to the entire organization s/he did not have before. Everyone up in the admin offices knows my people as being valuable in their particular realm.

I started to hatch a plan by which I could find ways to cultivate a path into the Studio School admin. All my professional life, I have wanted to use every scrap of position I could accumulate to create opportunities for growth for anyone I can. The minute I dedicated my whole work day to creating chances for others, my own career took a sudden upswing.

Signs of Growth and Success

I measure administrative success in all that I am not having to do myself. If I point out a situation, my staff comes back to me with unsolicited possible fixes. My staff now comes to me to request new challenges, ones they suss out for themselves. They are effortlessly making decisions for themselves that are well-aligned with the overall objectives of our department. I can honestly say each of my people gives a damn about the success of the Art Center as whole, and the Studio School specifically. The pay has not increased, the number of tasks has grown, so what gives? I believe it is because each of my crew members chose how to become vested in the work for themselves.

My Ceramics Department liaison has turned around the prevailing attitude of hyper-productive students. She has single-handedly created a data collection system for all firings, enabling my kiln techs to instill much-needed order. My Exhibitions liaison has shepherded several shows of member and student work to fruition. My Offsite Exhibitions person? She has curated 3 excellent shows and then facilitated their every step. Every single person has also helped me to rewrite and refocus the duties of the Customer Service Associate role.

My Hopes for the Future

My greatest hope? My biggest dream? I want to hire someone for the lowest position in my organization and cultivate that person’s choices into a trajectory which could lead them to be my successor. That seems the height of success. After all, I run a school: my entire business is inculcating progression. I need that definitive tug built into the DNA of my department to keep the energy high throughout.

The jobs I have to offer are not glamorous or wildly well-paid. There is the distinct possibility that any one of us will mop a floor, collate a pile of handouts, or even help a sick kid any day of the week. There are weekend shifts, redolent buckets of paper pulp, and cranky callers to navigate. None of that quotidian stuff matters in the end, except for the cumulative ascension they can inspire.

I have pursued a career in education for a decade because it helps me give more of my best to the world. I always knew I’d find a way to rise to the next opportunity if I ferreted it out. I am obligated to create structures for my employees that make those chances evident and abundant. I must provide clear paths into the organization and give every staff member daily proof that s/he can lead. The more I get used to being an administrator, the more I realize it is all about serving my staff as they amplify their capability within the brackets of the job at hand.

A Crossroads

I am faced with a real opportunity now: as I restructure my department, how can I build momentum within my established staff? I am interviewing new people, I am restructuring the roles… How do I navigate this in ways that keep morale high? I have already worked through most of my decisions on this point, but as I am still meeting new people, I am letting myself dream a bit of the group I could assemble. Who can I add who might have skills we can build upon in whole new directions?

I will detail my conclusions and next steps in Part Two of this essay later this month.

I am creating a community for my instructors to drive overall success

During a regular quarter, I have about 85 teaching artists who work at the Studio School. Some have taught at the center for decades; others are building a following one small group at a time. I am trying to find ways to add value for these talented folks at a time when I can’t offer much in the way of pay raises or other perks. I have started what I am calling the Teaching Artist Institute, a series of free lectures for current instructors on topics related to portfolio creation, career development, and general skill sharing.

This week, we had short talks on Social Media Strategy for all takers each day. It was a great chance to talk with instructors I had never gotten a chance to know. They had questions I had not anticipated and excellent feedback which I am using to fine tune the offerings to come. Once a few series take hold, I want to encourage the instructors to volunteer to train each other. When resources are scares, we can band together and build community.

Ali Ahmed talking about Facebook.

I geared the lectures this week to helping the artists learn more about how to promote not only their offerings and work but that of others at the Art Center. We have to look out for each other, plain and simple. I have seen how much more efficient the Center’s posts are when the artists share and contribute.  I for one need to make a positive contribution to the careers of others to know I am enriching my overall mission. This attitude is not about manipulating others, but changing the pH balance of the relationships around me so that I become a reliable resource as well as an active peer. Although I did have to hustle a bit to make it all happen, I see the artists who came are posting and sharing the work of others on the roster. If I can cultivate that into a sustained attitude of community in my faculty for each other, we can begin to develop the registrations and followings for which we hope.

I need to assess the success of these lectures in a few months. I am sending out a small survey to the group of artists who came this week so I can capture some data to use. If I do this after each group of presentations, I should be able to see how the attitudes of the instructors have changed. If I conflate that with the registrations and student survey, maybe I can find ways to trace the impact overall.



Beginning a semester with grace and poise. Or not.

I’m almost exactly six months into my new job: I am the Director of the Studio School for the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. I oversee about 1,200 students each quarter as they take about 140 classes and 60 workshops from 90ish instructors. I do this with one Coordinator, one part-time Registrar, and five part-time Customer Relations Associates and I think we do a pretty darn good job.

Tomorrow I start the week before the Winter quarter, and I am feeling a little sleepless. I have finally learned the ropes, and I can finally say I know quite a bit of what I don’t know. There is a lot I know from other realms: I have been a professional educator, designer, and artist over the years. But working in a small non-profit as an administrator? Yeah, still relatively new.

So I am recording my efforts here–I need to find community, mentors, examples, and most of all, perspective. My opinions are entirely my own, so please do not take my ramblings as representative of those of the Visual Arts Center. I love that place and if I make an ass of myself, it is not the fault of the institution, its employees, students, or admirers. That would all be on me.