December 2021 Winner - Rhea Mabry:(West Lauderdale High School)


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COLLINSVILLE — For the past 20 years, West Lauderdale High School art teacher Rhea Mabry has encouraged her students to forget formulas and forego footnotes and instead unleash their creativity and tap into self-expression.

Mabry's efforts to help students discover themselves were rewarded Wednesday as she was named the Golden Apple Teacher for December 2021.

"To me, art is a way for them to have an outlet," she said. "So many things are stressed for academics, SAT, math, science, English. When they come in here, they can be themselves and create what they want to create, and they have freedom in that. Obviously, as an artist, I feel like that is what it's about is expressing what you can contribute to the world."

Students are not immune to academic pressures, and years of focusing on finding the right answer and doing well on tests takes a toll.

Mabry said art is different, and can help students unwind from the stress of their day. But first, she said, they have to be taught how to tap into their potential.

DECEMBER GOLDEN APPLE: West Lauderdale's Rhea Mabry teaches students to draw outside the lines

Mabry uses her sketchbook to demontrate drawing techniques for her students. An Ipad above the sketchbook broadcasts her work to a television in real-time for students to follow along.

"It's almost like they've been trained how to educate, how to learn," Mabry said of her students. "And when they get in here, in this environment, I have to break them of that. I have to explain to them how to be creative, how to explore and how to be adventurous because they're so timid."

For Mabry, art was not a required course when she attended West Lauderdale High School. Mississippi added an art requirement in 1996, and Mabry said that was her chance to give students an opportunity she didn't have.

"I didn't have art in high school, so that kind of pushed me into doing it because even elementary school kids don't have access to art, and it's sad," she said. "It's important to me to show kids how art can influence their lives. Whether they like it or not, art is good for everybody."

In her classroom, Mabry said she tries to teach her students to try. There are no right or wrong answers in art, she said, but every student has to show their creativity.

"My board says practice will never hurt you, but not trying will," she said. "They have to try. As long as they try, then they are succeeding in what they're trying to do."

Mabry said one of the most rewarding things for her as a teacher is when a former student tells her she made a difference in their lives.

"I didn't realize I made an impact on them while they were in this room, but years later they'll tell me, 'Oh, you were my favorite class. I loved your class,'" she said. "They don't ever tell you when they're in the room, but later down the road when they tell you things you're like, 'Oh, I did make a difference.'"

Every student who graduates from West Lauderdale High School spends five months in Mabry's class, and during those five months, she said she does everything she can to give them the tools they'll need to be successful.

"I teach them for five months, but I try to do as much as I can with that five months that I have them, and hopefully it'll last them a lifetime," she said.