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Respect for art at heart of McCourts teaching

Trina Ortega / Post IndependentRoaring Fork High School art instructor Cathleen McCourt offers guidance to senior Abel Quintero on his political art project during an advanced art class. McCourt, who has taught art for 18 years, was recently nominated for the competitive L.S. Wood Teacher of the Year award.
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CARBONDALE Roaring Fork High School art instructor Cathleen McCourt never wanted to teach. In fact, she didnt want anything to do with kids.I didnt want to go into teaching. I hated baby-sitting. I hated kids, said the fine arts graduate.Now, 18 years into a teaching career, she cant imagine life without students. From hours in the classroom, to her planning period, to helping with the prom, she is constantly participating in their lives.And they have loved her, as well. Her influence as a teacher was recognized recently with a nomination for the locally prestigious L.S. Wood Teacher of the Year Award.McCourt graduated from Bowling Green University in Ohio with a bachelors degree in painting. Prior to finishing college, however, she began to question what she would do for a career. She worked in art therapy in gerontology because she loved seniors, but it was when she tried team teaching in inner-city Toledo, Ohio, that she figured it out.We did a life postcard project with the students in their art room the gymnasium. They were third-graders, and I had a blast. I thought, Im good at this, she recalls, describing the kids as amazing. I cant believe what comes out of the minds of little kids. Its like teaching Picasso. They create art based on feelings and emotions. Thats what got me.She added an extra year in college to earn her teaching certificate and launched her career in primary school in Ohio. In 1991, she moved to Carbondale and joined the faculty at Carbondale Elementary School, where she spent eight years. It was then that she considered the scary proposition of teaching high school students.Despite her fears of working with older kids, she had one factor in her favor: She had taught the young high schoolers already in elementary.It was easy. I knew who they were, they knew who I was, she said, admitting that she still had great fears about breaking through to the senior class, whom she didnt know. Often a little clumsy and constantly bumping into things, McCourt claims that that personality trait helped break the ice early on.One day we started laughing and having a good time she said, because she had walked into a cabinet door while talking. By the second week I knew I had made the right decision. I sat in my car one evening after work and cried. Even years later, tears well up in her eyes as she remembers that day.Now, she has no doubt that, in addition to providing an art education, a high school teacher must give and demand respect to build strong student rapport.High school is about the relationships. If kids know you truly care about them, youll do fine. They can sense a rat, she said.Reflecting on her experience at RFHS, McCourt wrote for the award nomination: High school has given me extraordinary challenges, a new energy, inspiration for my own art, lots of laughter and, most of all, meaningful student relationships that grow each year.Walking down the halls of RFHS, her room is not hard to find. McCourts classroom is artwork in itself. Different fabrics and materials color the walls and windows. Painted footprints trek across the stained concrete floor. Artwork from past and present projects line the ceilings and shelves. Color wheels and other art theory tips are pinned up. Music plays in the corner of the room, and senior students are milling about working on their latest pieces. The atmosphere is laid-back and inviting, a reflection of how the students describe McCourt.Her style is casual and she doesnt push deadlines. Recognizing that not everyone can be treated the same, she remains in tune with each student and how she or he is responding to a project. Above all, she strives to keep it fun.Art is supposed to be fun. You need to have fun. I took some students to [Kahhak Fine Art & School] and Majid told them If you are miserable doing it, it will show in your artwork. And its true.In the classroom, senior Jessica Hernandez works on her political project an art piece in any medium reflecting the students opinion on current world matters. Hernandez has chosen teen pregnancy and is tracing a life-size human tape statue onto butcher paper in the Art 4 class. McCourt holds up the sculpture as they look for just the right light and angle to capture the pregnant belly of the statue. The project is the most memorable for Hernandez, who has taken art every year at RFHS, and has enjoyed McCourts classes.Ive always liked art. I think its her personality; shes fun and outgoing. Thats just McCourt, said Hernandez, who wants to pursue a degree in international business but plans to keep creating art in years to come. She helps you a lot. You have your own ideas but she helps you get a better result, and it ends up better.Proud of and intimate with her students work, she is constantly thinking about how to help them achieve their desired outcome. The end of the year culminates with a juried art show open to the public. With more than 300 art students, a variety of projects, and professional setup, the show is an impressive display of their work, energy and talent.This years show will contain about 900 pieces and can be viewed May 21-23 at the high school. Hours coincide with other student-parent-teacher events from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on those days.Tristen Burkholder, also a senior in Art 4, plans to pursue formal art training after graduating. She has had McCourt since first grade and appreciates that she is flexible yet gives guidance and ideas as needed. Burkholders political piece is an anti-war collage with blood splattering. An accompanying poem communicates her message thats also apparent on the collage.Shes down to earth. Shell go with you [on a project]. Shes very helpful, fun and energetic. I actually like coming to this class, said Burkholder, who was particularly pleased with a large charcoal and paint tiger she created last semester. She is proud to note she gave it to her father, who had it framed and mounted. Burkholder credits McCourt for helping her succeed. She encourages me to go to the next level, to take it up a notch.McCourt has been a great influence to many throughout the years and prompted at least one former student to go into education. Carbondale Middle School teacher Ami Maes was a high school tutor in McCourts elementary school classroom.I really admired her as a person. She was a great role model. Thats when I decided to be an art teacher, Maes said. She does amazing work, exceptional.RFHS counselor Brad Shirey, who participated on the nominating committee, noted that McCourts reputation is far-reaching and that graduating middle school students have inquired about her art classes.Kids that arent even here know her name. She has a great reputation in the community. The school is fortunate to have a teacher of her skill, quality, and character, he said.Shirey said the nomination process was very competitive, noting that there are a number of RFHS teachers with great skills and talents, but that McCourt was a pretty unanimous sell among the group. Shirey worked with student Rachel Villalobos, math teacher Ryan Gillespie, and Principal Dale Parker on the nominations.The L.S. Wood Award, in its 23rd year, provides a $4,000 grant to a teacher from both the Roaring Fork Re-1 and Garfield County Re-2 school districts. Nominees and the two recipients will be honored at a banquet on Sunday.The winner from the Roaring Fork School District this year is biology teacher Michael Wilde from Glenwood Springs High School, and from Re-2 is Rifle High Schools English teacher Troy Phillips. The other nominees for the competitive award were Basalt High Schools Ben Mr. B Bohmfalk (Re-1) and Coal Ridges Leslie Keery (Re-2).


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