First Day of School Advice For Art Teachers

In this post I want to share some art lesson ideas and tips for beginning the year in the art room off on a positive note.  I will also share some techniques that will make your  students feel comfortable and confident creating art with meaning and purpose right from the start.  

The first days of school are stressful for everyone. Most middle and high school art teachers just spent weeks preparing a syllabus, writing curriculum, developing class rules, coming up with classroom procedures, thinking about art projects, lesson plans, and designing the perfect ice breaker activity.  We do everything we can to make sure we make a good impression on our students and show them we are prepared, organized,  and ready to establish order and mutual respect in the art classroom.  

All of these things are super important and are part of the recipe for starting the year off right, but I think there is one thing that teachers often overlook that really can be extremely powerful and set the tone for everything else.  

During one of my first years teaching another teacher shared something with me that completely changed how I viewed my priorities for the first few weeks of school. It wasn’t a set of techniques or a bunch of strategies.   He shared the following quote by Theodore Roosevelt.  He kept it on a magnet on his desk.  The quote was: 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  

The quote really resonated and made me reflect on my own high school experience.   I think we have all had that one teacher that made us feel special and and effortlessly captivated the class.  It wasn’t the teacher with the best theatrics, it was the one who had that perfect balance of structure but still somehow let you know you were important and seen. 

Remembering Student’s Names EARLY Shows You Care IMMEDIATLY

It may seem super obvious or even trivial, but remembering student names within the first few days of school can be the single most important thing you do all year.  It is the quickest way to show students they matter and build a rapport fast.  It may sound scary and overwhelming with all the other things you have to focus on in the art class, but don’t worry.  I have your back.  

In this post I will share lots of techniques and strategies and share some books and resources that can help.  

I am personally obsessed with human behavior, our brains, and how mindset affects achievement and success.  I am always reading books, listening to podcasts, and studying about how our thoughts and emotions affect our behavior and personalities.    I truly believe we must feel good on the inside in order to be our best selves and thrive on the outside. 

If we are feeling insecure, undervalued, not noticed, or overwhelmed, it is so much harder to give your best effort, live up to your fullest potential,  and take risks.  These are all of the things every art teacher wants their students to do in the art class.

Most People Forget Your Name a Few Seconds After an Introduction

We are all pretty used to people not remembering names and I’m sure you relate.  We have all been there….. trying to recall someone’s name just a few minutes after they JUST introduced themselves. It can be so frustrating.  Students are very used to this as well.  

In his book Limitless (which I highly recommend and will link below) Jim Kwick explains, 

“Our brains are too busy trying to think of what we are going to say next, rather than really listening to the person talking. We are too concerned with being interesting than interested.” 

This is easy to do on the first few days of school.  We want to be engaging and we are trying so hard to make a good impression.  However, proving to students right away that you are interested will automatically get their attention and make you more interesting.  When they see you took the time to really pay attention and notice them, they will feel valued, important, worthy, and more interested in everything else that you do.

Making a Concious Choice to REALLY Memorize ALL of Your Student’s Names

Remembering names used to be so hard for me.  But I realized that was only because I wasn’t committed to  making it a priority.   My focus was always on a hundred other things and learning names wasn’t at the top of my list.  I would try, but I wasn’t REALLY trying. 

I would forget a name and then move onto the next one on my list so I didn’t look bad or move too slowly and bore my class.   I would  tell myself I would go back to that one after I finished attendance or whatever task I was doing.  Usually I would get caught up and prioritize something else.

Once I made the decision to commit and learn new ways to learn and memorize,  it was not as hard as I thought.  The difference it has made in the comfort level of everyone in the classroom has been so profound. 

Remembering Names in The First Week Leads to More Trust 

This simple act has allowed me to develop deeper connections with my students and gain their trust and respect so much faster.  It makes ME feel amazing when I can call students by their names without cheating on the second day of class.  My energy, mood, and confidence soars and in turn so does theirs. 

The amazing Maya Angelou said,

 “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Many students are walking into your art room on the first days of school feeling anxious, nervous, scared, and insecure.  This is especially true if  they have been conditioned to think they can’t draw and are not good at art.  

If we can transform those negative emotions into good feelings fast, we immediately earn their trust and can create deeper connections with them sooner.

There are studies that show when people hear their own names parts of the brain are activated and feel good chemicals are released. This is just one simple thing we can to build positivity and create a lasting impression from the start.

So How Do You Learn 100 Plus Student Names in Only a Few Days? 

Below is a list of  some tips, techniques and  strategies that have helped me.  I recommend trying out a few and seeing which ones work best for you.  

The most important thing is to commit to the process and make it a priority each day.  I promise the results will be worth the effort and it will help you far beyond those first few days. 

  1.  Make a conscious effort to really remember and listen to the names as you are calling attendance.  Really look at each person’s face and go slow.  I am usually very honest with my students and let them know I’m moving slow because I really want to get to know their names. You will look a little silly sometimes, but the students appreciate it.  Don’t worry about boring them or moving on.  Reminding yourself to stay present and committed to this is key here.
  2. This one is my favorite.  I learned it from Jim Quick in his book Limitless.  Jim Quick is a speed reading expert, memory coach, and brain training expert.   He says if the person’s name sounds like another word try to create a visualization in your head connecting the two.  This has come easier for me with practice and I have a lot of fun with it.  So for example, I envision students with the name  Brayden with a braid in their hair because Brayden and “braid in” sound exactly the same.   Aiden also sounds like Braiden, so I picture all of my Braydens and Aidens wearing braids in their hair.   I NEVER forget an Aiden or Brayden past an introduction. 
  3. For names that are difficult or don’t sound like they are spelled, try using pneumonic devices and images.  For example, I had a student named Ailea.  She pronounced her name A-leash.  So when I first met her, I visualized her walking a dog on a leash.  Every time I called attendance my first instinct was to say her name like it is spelled, but before I could get the word out,  my brain magically would see the image of her walking a dog and it instantly trigger the correct pronunciation.
  4. On the second day of school, have your roster ready before students walk in, look at each student as they walk through the door and silently recall each name to yourself.  If you forget someone’s name, CHEAT….  Well not really, just look at your roster, or if you have photos in your grading program look at those. Try to use one of the tips above to store that person’s name in your memory BEFORE you call attendance.  I know we have a lot of other things to think about and it is SO HARD to keep focused on this,  but just remember how good you will feel when you have everyone’s name down in the first few days.
  5. When you do call attendance first find the student whose name you are about to call. Make eye contact and direct your gaze to that person BEFORE you say their name.  Let them know you recognize them.  If there are some you forget it is okay, simply make a mental note and try to focus on getting those names stored to memory today.  
  6. Another great tip which works AMAZING for art teachers is to have students create an artwork  or project that incorporates their name on the first day of school.  Seeing their names in their artwork will form another visual connection. Visualization works wonders and the more ways we can visualize the student’s names, the more connections it will make in our brains and the easier they will be to recall.

Below are some examples of art projects I do on the first day of school that incorporate student names into the designs.  All of these lessons also help me to get to know my students quickly because they encourage them to express their own interests, ideas, and personalities .   The best part is that they don’t need any art experience or prior drawing skills.  They aren’t intimidating and anyone can do them.

Radial Symmetry Name Design


In this Radial Symmetry Mixed Media Design.  Students create a radial symmetry design using their name and add collage and paint marker to embellish the piece and incorporate some of their interests.  It is super simple and creates a mandala like design. 


Reflective Symmetry Name Design

In the Reflective Symmetry Name Design below, students reflect their name over an axis and fill the shape with patterns, textures, and colors of their choice.  They come out looking like little totems.  You can stack them on top of each other and they look great displayed together in the classroom or hallways.


Neuro Doodle Design with Student Names

This last project is my favorite. In this Neuro Doodle Design students begin by writing their name large across the paper and then add freeform lines over the top and smooth out all of the intersections with a sharpie. 

All of these projects are excellent for the first week of school.  I love them because, in addition to helping me learn my students’ names, they build student confidence and show them they can do well in art despite any preconceived ideas they may have.

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