Jenna Saunders – 2016 Art Teacher of the Year

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Each fall, art teacher Jenna Saunders sits her students down and asks them to set two goals for the school year – a personal goal and an art goal.

It gives them a sense of direction for what they want to accomplish during the year.

Saunders herself really just has one core goal – to see her student’s lives change for the better because of the lasting influence of art.

“We talk a lot about the importance of goal setting – having the grit to succeed,” Saunders said. “It’s amazing to see when students can all of a sudden do things they didn’t think they could do – artistically and personally.”

The ability to see the inspirational power that art has in all of our lives is what has driven Saunders over the past 11 years of teaching at First Flight High School, a school of about 850 students located in the small beach town of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. And it’s also the reason she is our 2016 Teacher of the Year.

Saunders was nominated by Hunter Will, an English teacher who has worked with her at First Flight for the past 10 years.

“This teacher is a paragon for her colleagues and peers,” Will said. “She is such a positive force and an inspiration to all who are around her.”

Will said what makes Saunders unique is that she is a genuine person and a soulful artist. And with her students, she is passionate about art, but not forceful, letting them develop their own styles.

“Her loving and giving personality make her such an effective art teacher,” Will said. “She is so talented and inspires her students to think outside of the box while encouraging them to perfect their skills as artists.”

Jennifer Hamrock, who taught in the art department with Saunders for 9 years before leaving to work on her doctorate degree, notes it’s her kindness, patience and understanding that helps pull creativity out of her students.

“She’s a unique and creative thinker,” Hamrock said. “She’s structured, but open to possibilities of new directions. She’s sensitive to people and the world around her. And she keeps things real. I feel so fortunate I was able to work with her.”

School counselor Susan Lee has known Saunders for about 19 years. She was her counselor in high school. Once Saunders became a teacher, she had Lee’s son in art class.

“My son grew up with a rare, genetic syndrome,” Lee said. “Art kept him going through high school.”

In school, Lee’s son came up with the idea to paint unique designs on all of the trash cans along the beach, creating public art. Saunders supported the idea, the town rallied around the project and the students have continued to paint the trash cans each year since 2008.

Lee said it’s Saunders’ positive relationships with her students and her community that really set her apart as an exceptional teacher.

“She’s an amazing person,” Lee noted.

Having grown up in the area, Saunders knows a lot of people, making her something of a go-to person for the arts. The result has been an abundance of opportunity for community engagement.

Saunders’ classes have also been called to do community murals, window designs for local stores and art shows.

She volunteers to help hang many local art shows. And she organizes an annual fundraiser for the soup kitchen called Empty Bowls, where members of the community come in and create their own ceramic soup bowls that are auctioned off at a community soup dinner.

There is also time for some just-for-fun projects. For example, stores around town have life-size fiberglass horses that are decorated and set out front for customers to enjoy as public art. When someone donated a horse to the school, Saunders was left to decide what to do with it. She came up with the idea to make it a senior project. So, each year, the senior class will decide on a theme and decorate the horse as a sort of school mascot. Last year’s class dubbed their design “Senor Horse.”

“It was so fun,” Saunders mused. “The seniors all signed it. They even rode on it on the class float in the parade.”

When she’s not teaching, working in the community, creating artwork for her own shows or doing art projects with her own two kids, you might find Saunders volunteering with the local chapter of  Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

Even at FCA, she encourages students to care for others. This past year they packed 35 boxes for Operation Christmas Child, an organization that sends Christmas gifts to children around the world.

“She has such a positive bond with so many students on and off campus,” Will said, recalling the many ways Saunders makes it a point to give back to those who are less fortunate.

This year, Saunders made the toughest decision of her career. She chose to hang up her formal teaching hat to spend time with her kiddos while they are still young as well as focus on developing herself as an artist. She hopes to make art and possibly teach classes with her kids by her side, creating memories that will last a lifetime just like those her own mother gave her.

“I love teaching,” Saunders said as she thought over how hard it was to decide to leave First Flight. “I feel really honored to have spent 11 years there.”

Going forward, Saunders will take a piece of advice that she gives to her students at the very beginning of the year when they embark on a new art adventure: “Draw what you see, not what you know.” While Saunders might not know where the winds will take her, a beautiful family, friends and community full of love for her can clearly be seen shining brightly as beacons to guide her.

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Alexia Lang holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. Lang has worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and blogs, producing award-winning content centered around community and the arts.

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