By Alex Campbell
Following the recent announcement that she earned the 2015 Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, Art Teacher Ms. Annora Happe-Conway discussed the recognition and her 22-year career as an art teacher.
Hi's Eye: How did it feel to win the award?
Ms. Happe-Conway: Weird—I don’t like or need attention on me. One of my favorite quotes is from Futurama: “When you’ve done things right…people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” I love working in the background, organizing and problem solving. I don’t need outside acknowledgment to prove I exist, as long as I get to do the work I love. So it’s weird.
But once you remember that one of your students took the time to write their observations and thoughts and to follow through with turning them in, that’s incredibly humbling. And I hope the student understands how they have made a difference and how proud I am of them.
Hi's Eye: What is your philosophy when it comes to teaching, and how has it changed over the years?
Ms. Happe-Conway: In 10 or 20 years, after they have my class and they have just had the worst day of their life, and they are driving down Route 22 West, in the pits of despair, they can look up and notice how incredibly beautifully the sun is catching on that Payne’s grey and peach-lined cloud…. And they can have an aesthetic moment with the sublime and absurdness of the universe. The despair can melt away as they are absorbed in the beauty around them. Meaning… letting them be open to deep-seeing and beauty.
If I can expose them to the beauty in the line variation of charcoal as it dances across the fibers of their own paper, they can see the beauty and connect to the cave drawings and paintings of Altamira or Lascaux. They can feel an immediate connection to the artist's hand [from] 18-20,000 years ago.
Those core things have stayed the same over the years…. Note that corporate standardized testing and quantitative growth objectives are not there. I know the philosophy is working for me when I get emails from kids who graduated 4, 10, 15 years ago, and they tell me about something beautiful they saw or how they are using what I taught them in their lives.
Hi's Eye: If your students could take away one thing from your class, what could it be?
Ms. Happe-Conway: See, see, see, see, see. Not look. Take the time to stop—truly see, absorb. Think for yourself. See deeply, think deeply. Keep asking, “What if?” Be open to beauty. That’s more than one thing, but it’s all interconnected.
Hi's Eye: What do you enjoy the most about teaching?
Ms. Happe-Conway: I get to continually study and share the things I am most passionate about: drawing, painting, composition, art history…. I read old, sometimes ancient texts and the most contemporary literature I can get my hands on, and I get to figure out how to incorporate it into lessons for my students. I love the pursuit of knowledge and seeing. Teaching lets me share that.
Hi's Eye: What is the most difficult aspect of being a teacher?
Ms. Happe-Conway: Years ago in graduate school, I was having a discussion about creating works of art with another painter. She said: “What’s so annoying is people who have never drawn or painted in their lives judge our works because they think they have seen the same objects we paint. They look at a painting and tell the artist what they should have done, because they think they know what an apple or a face looks like. But you never hear them tell the train conductor how they should be driving the train.”
It’s sort of the same with teaching. A lot of people who went to school tell teachers how they should be teaching, but having been a student in no way prepares you to understand what teachers actually do. Too many outside groups come up with new demands that don’t relate to the next or the previous demand on our time and commitment. I like creating logical, intelligent, sequential, well-thought-out lessons, not appeasing the political goals of external egos who don’t know how to drive the train.
Hi's Eye: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Ms. Happe-Conway: Spend time alone thinking. Silence the outside noise and influences. Shut the cell phone off and learn to think deeply, not shallowly.