"There is So Much Good in these Boys. I Want to Expose their Talents"
For over two years, Anna Gawel has dedicated her career to teaching adolescent boys at the Albert J. Solnit North in East Windsor. “I strive to break the stigma of art rigidity," she explained. Having had first-hand experience with how important and pivotal a role the art teacher plays, she remembered her High School Art Teacher with a depth of fondness and gratitude. "She saw a natural talent, that I wasn’t able to see. She took me under her wing, encouraging me to explore a career in the arts and I did just that. I hope to inspire other youth the way she inspired me”.
After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts, Anna pursued work in the commercial field but soon realized that the work didn’t define her purpose. "I like the clinical setting," she said, adding, “I can infuse therapy in the arts."
Anna teaches boys, ages 12 to 17 years. The students are required to attend Art Class every day for 45-minute sessions. When they sense a lack of authenticity, it is unlikely these students will connect with their teacher. Their trust is one of the most important things a teacher can ask for and receive. "The biggest barrier I find initially is knowing where the kids come from and then building that trust. We spend time trying to figure one another out," she added. Anna attributes her positive classroom environment to ensuring consistency, setting expectations and being respectful of one another.
The art projects have no deadlines. “I love to watch their minds create the work. The kids fascinate me," she said. “I had one student who would use different supplies like popsicle sticks, paper, glue and other art elements and create a masterpiece," she explained, adding, “their creativity is endless. Once I taught a student who no doubt was a genius. He had a sharp engineer - type mind, creating art through robotics. He had no idea how brilliant he was."
The classroom dynamics can sometimes be challenging for Anna and her students. Often the social pressures and stressors that happen outside of her class, spill into the art room. "On their off days, ripping up paper or scribbling for 45 minutes is still a successful day." Other kids may find the artwork to be a distraction from those social pressures, using their creative expression as an outlet.
Anna said that her work is supported by her school principal Don Slater. “He always has my back and supports my ideas," she stated. Mr. Slater feels that Anna is an asset to Solnit. “Ms. Gawel is a teacher with the amazing gift of teaching. She lights up her classroom with inspiration. She is an energetic and motivational teacher who consistently and constantly works to build meaningful relationships with students encouraging them to be positive contributing members of our school community. Ms. Gawel goes beyond interacting with students on an instructional level and works to make sure their physical and emotional needs are met. She has high expectations for all her students. She uses a student-centered approach to teach art, always trying to improve student outcomes. She makes times for each student, collaborates with other teachers and is always looking to become a better teacher. She has made many of our students' artist and/or better artist because of her great teaching,” he said.
“Art can be intimidating for some students," Anna explained. Not every student feels that they can be artistic, and some may not have a true understanding of what art really is. Anna finds that some students are terrified of making a mistake. "I create alongside my students. They see me draw and erase and begin again. This shows them that it's ok to not get it right the first time," Anna said.
“I am so honored. There is so much good in these boys, my story will hopefully expose their talents," Anna recently commented after being recognized during Teacher Appreciation Month. She displays the artwork of her youth in display cabinets on site. Some kids choose not to display their work until they see the accolades that their peers experience and then change their mind and agree to have their work displayed. “When the kids leave us, they get to take all or none of their artwork." she said. “I encourage them to keep their work but sometimes they leave it behind, and we continue to celebrate their creativity."
Anna hopes that the students she has taught over the past few years will remember her long after their placement at Solnit. “My hope is that they will remember something I did or something I said that made a difference. I hope that for every time I reminded them, I'm not going to give up on you, ever - that they truly believed me”.