Most mornings, students at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Northeast Baltimore arrive early and wait for the art teacher to unlock her classroom.
They work quietly before first period under the direction of Athanasia Kyriakakos, drawing, painting and expressing emotions on canvas they couldn't capture with words.
Kyriakakos, or "Mrs. K" to her students, was named Friday as Maryland State Teacher of the Year — the second consecutive year a Baltimore City educator has earned the honor.
"I'm really glad an art teacher got this, so maybe we can change the discourse about art education," said Kyriakakos, 47. "What we teach is not just about color theory — it's about life skills."
Kyriakakos has taught art from prekindergarten to high school since she began in city schools in 2011. She has taught since 2014 at Mervo.
"She personifies the kind of teacher every student deserves — caring, dedicated, talented, energetic, and an advocate for helping students express themselves in positive ways," city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement.
Kyriakakos was born in the U.S. and spent a decade in Greece as a child. After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, she moved to Connecticut and found a passion for teaching.
Her career has included studying and teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, and positions in Greece and Sweden. She was named Teacher of the Year for Maryland after being named the city's Teacher of the Year in April.
Her class, Foundations of Art, teaches three lessons. Not painting, drawing, sculpture, she tells students, but rather, focus, perseverance and resilience.
The first week she has students draw the contour of their left hand, again and again.
"They understand I will not accept anything lower than the highest possible product," she said. "They will excel. I will call them at home. I will text them at night. I will call their parents. I will sit after school every day until they get that damn hand."
Soon the students are swept up, arriving early. Last year, someone — she still doesn't know who — discovered how to jimmy the lock on her classroom. Students were working when she arrived.
"How can you get mad at them?" she said.
Lessons evolve from hands to painted portraits of power. She challenges students, "What is power in your life?"
They have painted themselves as pop singer Beyonce with crackling, electric hair and breaking from chains; also as a posturing young man, and their own fist shattering prison bars.
"This image that comes right out of their soul onto the canvas," she said.
Morgan State University freshman Brandon Towns was a shy student before she asked him to explain his paintings to visitors. His confidence grew.
"It became such a great habit to be able to talk to people," he said. "Mrs. K helped me get direction in my life, like understand what type of man I want to be."