Towson High School art teacher Rachel Valsing recalls her high school years in Central Pennsylvania as a time when she was a shy teenager unsure of her place in the world.
Valsing, who is now 35, struggled with finding her niche until her art teachers pushed her to question who she was as a person.
Since, Valsing has gained a confidence in herself through art that she now tries to instill in every student who passes through her classroom, she said.
In recognition of her efforts, Baltimore County Public Schools nominated Valsing for the Maryland Art Education Association’s Maryland State Art Educator of the Year award. Valsing won the statewide award at the association’s Nov. 18 ceremony at the Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore.
The state chapter of the national association chose Valsing for exemplifying excellence and professional attention to quality art education.
“Winning the Maryland State Art Educator Award is a humbling experience and would not be possible without the support of an incredible community of mentors and colleagues in the field” Valsing said. “I feel honored to be recognized for my work.”
The association’s mission is to advocate for and advance art education in Maryland. It conducts public discussions, publishes art content and research and works with other organizations to advocate on behalf of art education throughout the state.
Valsing was one of two Baltimore County Public School teachers who walked away with top honors this year. Michele Momenzadeh, of Perry Hall Middle School, was named Maryland Middle School Art Teacher of the Year.
Six other Baltimore County teachers were also nominated, including Dawn Jewell, of West Towson Elementary School, who was nominated for Baltimore County’s Novice Elementary Art Teacher of the Year, according to county school officials.
"We are proud of Ms. Valsing for supporting all students,” Towson High principal Charlene DiMino said in a statement. “She works diligently to encourage students to reach their maximum potential within and outside the classroom setting.”
Valsing also produces professional development training for other art teachers as a member of the Maryland Art Education Association and showcases student art throughout the community at exhibits and community events, DiMino said.
“She strives to enhance the school atmosphere by showcasing student talent,” DiMino added. “We are thankful for her efforts."
‘What do you see?’
Valsing, a 2007 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, teaches Fundamentals of Art and Intermediate Art to freshman and sophomores at Towson High, where she’s taught for eight years. The foundation classes prepare students for advanced studio work in their junior and senior years, Valsing said.
In her classroom last week, students studied how light affects the way humans perceive forms by drawing a collection of blocks. Valsing instructed students to turn on clamp lamps placed on each table. The lights cast shadows onto the students’ papers.
“What do you see?” Valsing asked.
Without the light, the blocks might appear to be a different color or size, one student explained.
Valsing said she values when students question the creative process and enjoys creating an environment in which students are open to discovery.
“I want to give them the freedom to explore ideas independently,” Valsing said, adding that her most influential art teachers did the same, allowing her to explore different mediums and to question the processes by which art is created. “When you’re thinking about what you want at the end of the day for your students, so much relates back to your personal background.”
Valsing is also the faculty sponsor of the National Art Honor Society, a national art education association for high school students.
Students look up to Valsing as a supportive teacher and role model, according to National Art Honor Society president and Towson High senior Sonali Rawal.
Instead of creating a project in one medium because it’s traditionally done one way, Valsing gives students a chance to experiment and play with different types of art, Sonali said.
“We look up to her, and I see myself coming back to her in college to ask questions,” Sonali added.
Valsing’s approach allows students to grow as artists, said student Cale Pfingsten, 17, adding that Valsing keeps track of her former students and their progress as artists long after they pass through her classes.
“It’s not like you have her once as a teacher and that’s it,” Cale said. “She still cares.”