It’s been two years since Jennifer Olansen was in Rebekah Pignaloso’s social studies class, but she hasn’t forgotten the positive impact the sixth-grade teacher made on her and others.
“I always remember her being so nice to everybody and always wanting everybody to do their best and trying to help them succeed no matter what,” Olansen said.
That is why Olansen, an eighth-grader in the gifted visual arts program at Virginia Beach Middle School (VBMS), selected Pignaloso as the recipient of her teacher-inspired artwork, one of the final assignments for eighth-graders in the program.
“It’s a piece students create to honor a teacher who has made an impact or a difference in their time here at VB Middle,” explained VBMS art teacher Anne Baker.
“The kids really look forward to it at the end of the year,” added Jessica Provow, VBMS art teacher. “It’s a gift to the teachers – a thank you.”
And the recipients are so grateful for the thoughtful gift.
“My favorite part of the piece is the central focus – the continent of Africa, which is cut out and filled with newsprint – because it clearly shows that she recognized my love of traveling and reading when she thought of what she wanted to create,” said Pignaloso. “[I] was honored when the final product was revealed…now to frame it and put it in my house!”
To better understand what may be meaningful to their selected teachers, the student artists interview them in addition to reflecting on what makes the teachers special to them.
Providing a listening ear is what has made VBMS School Counselor Kasey Lahousse a special person to Alyssa Serrano.
“I started going to her last year because I had a lot going on and I wanted to talk to her about it,” reflected Serrano. “And I had a house fire this year and I went to talk to her about it, and she gave me school supplies for me and my brother. She really helped me a lot with what was going on.”
Serrano said it made her feel “really happy” to present the gift to Lahousse “because she gave me something so I wanted to give her something in return.” The painting incorporated Lahousse’s favorite animal, favorite color and favorite flowers – one flower from where she used to live (Japan) and one from where she will be moving after this school year (Hawaii).
According to Lahousse, who said she loved the very personal artwork, Serrano gave her an even greater gift.
“I am happy to hear that I have supported her over the past few years, but the truth is, she has inspired me and helped me grow professionally as a school counselor,” Lahousse shared. “Alyssa works hard academically, is kind to everyone she meets, and never gives up.”
Mutual admiration is also evident in the collaborative piece created by eighth-grader Madison Washington and her art teacher, Leah Krueger. The unique installation features circular silk paintings of fish, coral, shells and other items that represent various symbols between the student and teacher.
“I have never worked with a student on a collaborative project before,” Krueger said. “I knew I wanted this to be something different; something that truly reflected our relationship: that we inspire each other.”
Painting on silk, Krueger’s favorite, was new to Washington and provided an opportunity for her to further grow as an artist while creating a meaningful piece with her teacher.
“She’s always been there for me and she’s just such a great person,” said Washington. “She’s the nicest person I’ve ever met. I love her so much. I call her ‘my school mom,’ because it’s that kind of bond.”
Krueger has equally positive feelings about Washington.
“What I admire so much about this young lady,” said Krueger, “is her positive attitude, her selfless nature and her ability to make beautiful, meaningful works of art. She is the type of person who will go out and change the world.”
While some students, like Washington, honored teachers they have known for their entire middle school career, other students’ pieces show that teachers can make a positive impact in a short amount of time.
Nina Wilson created artwork to honor Lateesha Green, a long-term substitute teacher for Wilson’s social studies class. The piece includes a profile portrait of Green surrounded by blue circles that include classmates’ handwritten words to describe her: strong, fun, fashionable, inspiring, outgoing, caring, empowering.
“You were only subbing for the last few months,” wrote Wilson in the artist statement with the piece, “but you still managed to make a strong connection with the students that was unlike any I’d seen in my three years here. As the year is coming to a close, I want you to know that I will never forget you. You gave us a meaningful talk about never throwing away our education that I know I, as well as many others, will hold on to and remember. I’m very thankful I got to have you as a sub in my final year of middle school because you have made an unforgettably positive impact in so many of our lives.”
Selena York recognized another substitute teacher, Ali Roane, who works as a permanent substitute at VBMS. “He’s one of the teachers that cares about you…[and] he has a sense of humor and makes learning fun.”
York used a reference photo from Roane’s wedding day to illustrate a memorable dance on a cruise ship overlooking the Miami skyline.
“He said one of the most important things to him is his family and his wife, and this was an important day to him,” York explained.
Roane said he was honored that York selected him as the teacher for her final project. “She wrote some very warm words that let me know that I am truly making a difference, no matter how small. To capture such a beautiful moment and display it in such a unique way was amazing. I showed my wife and she loved it as well.”
Eighth-grader Nick Samuels also used a ship – a pirate ship – in his artwork for first-year teacher Dakota Harmon. The pirate standing on the ship’s bow is on a quest for a treasure chest full of coffee – a beverage Harmon talks about regularly, according to Samuels.
“Just to spruce it up,” shared Samuels, “I painted it with coffee water to try and make it smell like that.”
The student artist was also mindful of the fact that Harmon is new to the profession. “I thought it would be cool to do this one for him especially since it’s his first year. I just wanted it to be kind of like a welcome gift for him,” said Samuels.
He shared more of his thoughts about Harmon in his written artist statement: “It’s been an honor to have The Great Mr. Harmon as my eighth-grade civics teacher. Not only is he a teacher but a friend to his students. He can be serious at times when needed, but he likes to have fun, making the curriculum innovative and fun for students. For his first year of teaching, I give him an A+.”
While Harmon concludes his first year, Arthur Simon is wrapping up his final year teaching and Serenity Steet wanted to honor him.
“His class is one of my favorites because he’s really funny and he makes the class interesting,” she said of her math teacher for two years. “He’s a really good teacher…and he’s retiring this year so I wanted to make something for him.”
Steet painted a portrait of Simon holding two of his cats, who she said have featured prominently in many class stories. The math teacher also has told students about his career in the Navy, which inspired the background of Steet’s painting.
“It might be hard to tell, but I put stars [in the background], and I put the reflection of the stars in his glasses to represent how when he was in the Navy, he was the only one who knew how to navigate using the stars,” Steet said.
Like the stars in Steet’s piece, Caillou Denton paid attention to details in the multimedia piece he created for eighth-grade math teacher Austin Mehl.
“Since his favorite animal is a kangaroo, I just combined his favorite football team with a kangaroo and made him a character,” said Denton while placing the final handmade playing card on the artwork to represent Mehl’s favorite game, 21. More favorites – Spiderman and hip hop – are also featured.
Mehl said he wanted to honor Denton because, “He has the most understanding personality.” Additionally, according to Denton, Mehl always answers his questions and shows a calm demeanor in class.
While the teachers who receive artwork feel honored to be acknowledged by students, it also makes a lasting impression on the students who leave this artwork behind as they transition to high school.
“I really enjoyed it,” reflected Olansen. “I think it showed a lot of appreciation for teachers who maybe didn’t think so much about their making a difference, but they really are.”