BHS's Ashley Heitschmidt named Teacher of the Year

by Jordan Green

Blackwell High School Art Instructor Ashley Heitschmidt received the Oklahoma Art Education Association’s “Secondary Teacher of the Year Award” on Sept. 25. It’s the organization’s top award for an Oklahoma high school art educator.

Heitschmidt sat down with the Journal-Tribune to talk about how she got the award – and, more importantly, why she loves teaching students. Here’s what she had to say.

Q: How does it feel to receive this award?

A: I am honored and humbled, as I know this award places me among the great art educators I was watching and studying as I grew into this career. I was nominated by a wonderfully talented colleague of mine, Betty Bowen Hancock, who teaches art in Cushing. I also know her through being a teaching artist at Arts Adventure Summer Camp at Northern Oklahoma College, where I served on the board. 

Q: Did you know in advance that you would be receiving this award?

A: I knew I was nominated, but I was not sure I would get it. There are many other art teachers across the state that were being considered as well. 

Q: How did you enter the field of education?

A: I changed my major a few times in college. I knew I had a love for art, and was discovering I had a skill for it, too. I wasn't sure in which capacity I wanted to pursue it. I started with a major in humanities, and I changed to digital animation and design. I got my associate's degree in studio art and finally settled on art education when I transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma, where I got a “taste” of both the arts and education departments. They had an incredible degree program specific to arts education, and I knew I had found my place. 

Q: Where did you attend college, and what is your degree in? 

A: I obtained by certification and training in digital media and design from Northern Oklahoma College and John Brown University. I obtained my Associate’s of art from NOC, and I obtained my Bachelor’s of fine arts in art education from UCO. 

Q: What school(s) have you worked at, and how long have you been at BHS?

A: I taught for three years at Central Middle School in the Putnam City Schools District. I also worked for one year at Agra Schools, where I taught all students Kindergarten through 12th grade. I started a first-ever art program for their district. I’ve been at Blackwell High School for 12 years.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of being an art teacher?

A: How can I pick one? There are so many great moments.  One is watching students start their first week – their first year – in my art foundations class. They have little to no background knowledge of art. Then, they grow to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students in my advanced or studio classes who get teary-eyed in front of a Van Gogh painting in an art museum on one of our class trips. Then, there are times when students hold up their artwork and suddenly exclaim into the focused silence of the studio classroom: "Look, Mrs. H! Oh, my gosh, it actually looks good! I did it!" Then, the rest of their classmates rush over to gush over the beauty they are beholding. Then there are times when groups of students gather in the hallway to see the new work we've displayed outside the classroom. You can hear the commotion of students saying “Wow! That one's really good! He's so talented!" The positive climate and support it builds is so heart-warming.

Q: What is your top priority in the classroom?

A: My top priority is that every student that walks in comes out with a greater worldview, an understanding of the impact of art on society and how it affects their everyday lives. I hope that they find, at the very least, one thing they can be confident about creating – one thing that they feel some form of pride and validation in thanks to their hard work.

Q: How do you feel art impacts the lives of students?

A: This is a very complex question to answer. That impact … It is so much greater than many people realize. Art builds skills such as creative problem-solving, information processing, simple hand-eye coordination, and fine motor-skill use. It develops healthy emotional responses, including things like patience, perseverance, resiliency, and tolerance. It allows for greater understanding across the curriculum because art exists in each subject matter and can teach skills from each subject matter within the art classroom. It helps the students make connections and learn the same information in a different way. And it connects humanity with humanity. It is the unspoken language that we all can speak. It is the great equalizer. Art knows no race, gender, financial status, political stance, or educational level. Art is for everyone and can be created and understood by anyone. It is the original way we communicated as human beings and recorded our history.  

I have seen what has happened when we reduce the exposure of the arts to kids in their most formative years. There is a great decline in those skills I mentioned. There is a disconnect when they aren't given the opportunity to develop. 

But, more specifically, art can impact the student by making them feel like they have a place they are welcome; they have a place where their voices are heard and their feelings are accepted. Many students who struggle to find their place in high school find themselves in the art room. Maybe they can't define scientific methods, or work lines and lines of equations, or express their complex thoughts and feelings in an essay. … But those colors and lines and images they pour out onto the paper speak to the depths of their hearts and minds. Those students often discover that there is a whole part of themselves that they never knew, or that they didn't think was accepted by their peers or family, or simply that there is finally something they can do "right" and feel good about it. 

Q: Is there anyone whom you would like to thank?

A: Of course, I would like to thank my friend and colleague Betty, who nominated me. I would also like to thank John Cherry, E.J. Edgar, and Kim Hague for their support, and for writing wonderfully kind recommendation letters. I would like to thank the OAEA selection board, and thank my colleagues, friends, students, and community members for their ongoing support. Your kind words mean so much!

I would also like to thank my art professors, who instilled a love of art in me so I can pass that on to my students. 

I want to say “Thank you” to my past and current students, who are receptive to my teaching and grow their passion for the arts on a daily basis. They make my job rewarding. They continuously show me where my strengths are, and they challenge my weaknesses. They make me a better teacher and a better person. 

And most importantly, I would like to thank my husband, Zack. My students grow to love him as much as they care for me. He is my “right hand.” He is my carpenter, my muscle, my field-trip bus-driver, my “brain organizer,” and my cheerleader. Who I am as a teacher would not be possible without him in my life. 

Q: Will there be a ceremony at which you will be given this award?

A: Yes. October 25-26th is our Oklahoma Art Education Association state convention. I will be honored there by the board and the teacher that nominated me. It will be held at Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, OK.