While I was home for the summer after my freshman year of college, I stopped by my high school for a visit with Ms. Wax, who had taught me in an Introduction to Art class five years earlier. For myself and others, Ms. Wax was that one teacher who had an uncanny ability to make you realize every last bit of your worth and intelligence and potential for greatness; the sort of teacher that every student should be so lucky to have. My decision to apply to the Visual Arts Education MAT program at Columbia College Chicago can be abstracted rather easily, relative to my relationship with Ms. Wax. To give myself the opportunity to inspire and educate students with art, and have the same magnitude of positive influence that Ms. Wax had on me, is the most worthwhile professional endeavor I can imagine.
Ms. Wax was using a prep period to grade student work while we played catch-up. She asked: how was college; what was I studying. I sheepishly admitted my major remained undeclared. We chatted a bit more until seemingly out of nowhere she announced, “you know, you should be an art teacher!” I felt instantly enlightened and empowered by her recommendation made there in the same, comfortable room where she had been the first person to help me realize my love of and propensity for art. “Of course, I should be an art teacher!” I smiled at the irony of something that now felt obvious having been so far from my mind.
During college, I worked with at-risk youth through a mentoring organization that encouraged post-secondary education. But even when I was still a high school student myself, my passions (aside from art) included working with young children and the pursuit of education. There were hours spent leading craft projects over the years as a counselor at a neighborhood summer camp. There were afternoon tutoring sessions and countless games of Connect Four played at the Boys and Girls Club where I volunteered. And there were the tireless months I poured into what I consider the most important art I have ever made, a mosaic about the power of literacy that was permanently installed at Dodge Renaissance Academy, an elementary school on Chicago’s near west side.
As a high school senior, I participated in a self-developed, co-curricular project where a classmate and I designed, constructed and installed the 4’x12’ mosaic in a new reading room at Dodge called the “Literacy Lounge”. We teamed up with students in an after-school program called “Art Start” to brainstorm ideas for the mosaic, and we facilitated relevant art projects for them. Attendance at Art Start wavered, but I was encouraged by DeSean, who showed up every week without fail. DeSean was in 6th grade, and he loved art. He loved making it, learning about it, even just hanging out around it. I cannot think of a time I felt more flattered than when I watched DeSean engage excitedly in a lesson I had planned. DeSean was lucky to have an advocate in Ms. Morsher, the art teacher at Dodge. She warmly, eagerly nurtured his passion and allowed him to continually explore it through new mediums and ideas.
Upon my return to college in the fall after my rendezvous with Ms. Wax, I worked with an academic advisor to declare my major in the School of Art. With her aware of my intention to become a teacher, we decided it would be beneficial for me to earn a degree that required a survey of courses across the discipline. My grand plan was to pursue a course of study that would qualify me for an art endorsement, and then seek admission into an urban teacher corps that would concurrently provide a job working in a high-need community, as well as a route to obtaining my teaching certificate. As an undergraduate, I spent some time helping to manage the recruitment campaign for Teach for America (TFA) at the University of Miami. I planned informational events, interacted closely with TFA staff members, and served as a liaison to students. I was confident that TFA would provide me with exactly the opportunity I was looking for post-graduation.
Much to my dismay, in spite of attending a final interview and feeling confident about my application and performance, I was not offered a position in the Teach for America corps. I regrouped and applied to a similar program localized in Chicago – the teacher residency offered by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). It seemed meant to be. My first choice for geographical placement with Teach for America was Chicago, anyway. As an alumna of the Chicago Public Schools, I felt motivated to offer some sort of recompense for how much my public education and teachers had done for me. Better still, AUSL’s program was smaller and less competitive than TFA’s, and had specific openings for art teachers. Finally, and serendipitously, I discovered that Dodge Renaissance Academy (where I completed the mosaic project) was one of the very first low-performing schools that AUSL turned around, just two years before the mosaic was built. All things considered, there is no better word than “shocked” to describe how I felt when I was denied admission to the AUSL teacher residency program, also after a third and final interview.
I could not understand why the review committees did not perceive how badly I wanted to be a teacher, nor why they lacked confidence that I would succeed as such. During this bout of disappointment in the spring of 2010, I was working as a Special Education Aide at CICS Northtown Academy, a charter high school in Chicago. I have never loved a job more. Being around students every day, watching them learn, and having an opportunity to participate in that process was the most rewarding experience I have ever had. It only confirmed in my mind that I was destined to teach. I was fortunate to be referred the position when it opened up. I was devastated, however, when funding was cut and my position was eliminated for the following academic year.
When I thought I would be returning to my aide position the next fall, I looked into ways to keep busy over the summer months. I applied for and accepted an unpaid position as the Volunteer Coordinator at a new, non-profit animal shelter. This catalyzed the next several years of my life being dedicated to non-profit development and animal advocacy, other great passions of mine from my years in college. While I have enjoyed this work immensely, it has not fulfilled me completely. I still long to advocate for students like DeSean, like my exceptionally special students at Northtown, and like the introduction-to-art-14-year-old version of myself. I want to use art to inspire their lives.
As an undergraduate, I worked on-campus in the Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development. We taught a model of servant leadership: the idea that one serves the group they are leading by prioritizing the needs of the group in order to allow members to achieve their maximum potential. Other important characteristics of servant leadership include active listening, community building, and increased self-awareness. I believe that teachers epitomize what it means to be a servant leader. They think holistically and work collaboratively with peer educators to address the needs of every student, both inside and outside of the classroom. It is a tall order to fill, but I know I possess both the willingness and qualification to develop into an effective teacher and servant leader who advocates for her students, their families, their schools, and their neighborhoods.
I chose to pursue my Master of Arts in Teaching in Visual Art Education at Columbia College Chicago because I feel strongly committed to this city and its youth, and I appreciate its sense of art history and art community. I feel well prepared to utilize all of the knowledge and training I have acquired over the past two years as a graduate student as I take the next step and realize my unyielding dream of working as an art educator.
My ID photo for Columbia, taken before my first semester, July 2014.