Art Teacher Sandra Rivas-Cole has taught at Lake Howell High School for 16 years. The high school of about 2,000 students is in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, Seminole County. An estimated 275 students sit in classes with Rivas-Cole annually. That means about 4,400 students have passed through her classroom, enriched by a self-described Disney fanatic and all-around animated and enthusiastic teacher.
Just like her own high school students, Rivas-Cole wanted to pursue every career. “You want to be everything, to try everything. I thought about computer animation, but my first semester at the University of Central Florida, I didn’t do well in my computer classes. I kept trying to figure out what I wanted to do and a conversation flashed from my English teacher, Mrs. Hopkins, who often told me that I would be a good teacher. I started taking education courses and they were the right fit for me. I have always been involved in art and the natural step was to meld those two together. As a child, I was always drawing. It was a calling. I just kept going and adding to my skills. Every so often, I will draw or paint with my students. They don’t believe I can and it cracks me up when I demonstrate one of the assignments.”
Despite an often 12-hour work day, Rivas-Cole draws and paints when she finds a few minutes. “We start at 7:20 in the morning and end at 2:20 in the afternoon. I get here at 6:30 a.m. and don’t leave at 6 p.m. I have my teacher cape on for about 12 hours.” Not only does she teach Art 2D, Drawing 1, Painting 1 and Advanced Placement Studio, she also sponsors the junior class and varsity club and serves as cheerleading advisor. “No student can be bored in my presence. From the moment they walk in until the moment they leave, they are moving and shaking.”
On top of that, students have learned that Rivas-Cole has a compassionate ear and will listen to students who aren’t necessarily in her classes. “We all want validation. When I got the principal’s award, I smiled and kept going. I am going to keep on trucking for the betterment of my students.”
Since being at Lake Howell, she has taught Art 2D, Art 3D, Drawing 1 and 2, Painting 1 and 2, Digital Photography 1-4, Traditional Darkroom Photography, Film Studies, Stage Craft, Humanities 1 and 2, Advanced Placement Art History, and Advanced Placement Studio Art. Currently she is teaching Art 2D, Drawing, Painting, and AP Studio Art. She also serves as the Junior Class Sponsor, one of the School Wide Mentor teachers, National Art Honor Society Co-Sponsor, and the Varsity Club Co-Sponsor (the school spirit club). During the 2011-12 school year, she was honored with the title of 2013 Teacher of the Year at her school and at the end of the 2012-13 school year, she was honored with the Principal’s Award.
Her principal Frank Casillo nominated for the Creative Outlook’s inaugural Art Teacher of the Year. “I have worked with Mrs. Rivas and find her to be one of the most professional and talented young educators in the teaching profession. She has taught a wide assortment of art courses ranging from fundamentals to advanced placement. Regardless of the subject matter or academic level of her students, Mrs. Rivas has been successful in ensuring that her students reach a high degree of academic success,” he writes. “Through her enthusiastic approach, creativity and ability to motivate, Mrs. Rivas creates a nurturing learning environment that provides students with an exceptional creative educational experience. Never accepting mediocrity, she is persistent in seeing that her students have every opportunity to be successful. With her excellent planning and organizational skills, it is always a delight to observe Mrs. Rivas’ classes at work as her students are active participants in their course work.”
Regardless of stress and general craziness, Rivas-Cole marks successes each and every day. “I also have students who have stayed in touch. Several are in the arts. My ultimate goal is that one kid learns something. I want students to know more than what they did when they first entered my class. I know that not all my art students are going to be artists, but I want to know that I have made a difference.” Casillo further writes, “More than an outstanding teacher, Sandra uses her intelligence and tenacity to ensure that all students at Lake Howell High School are afforded an excellent educational opportunity. As an integral part of the Fine Arts Department, Mrs. Rivas gives countless hours both as teacher and Silver Hawk supporter for teams, clubs and committees. As a teacher her accomplishments are many, however; Mrs. Rivas’ greatest asset is her genuine affection for young people and the lifelong impact she has upon them.”
Rivas-Cole not only helps students reach their potential, she also serves as a mentor teacher to a peer teacher. “I said yes to this program about seven years ago. I like being a mentor teacher. These younger teachers keep me young. They are excited and they get me excited. I know the first year can be tough. It can be tough on teachers who have taught for 20 years and that is why I have a stash of chocolate.” She has also aided the drama teacher, James Brendlinger, in raising money for the Florida district of Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS. “He’s an amazing teacher and I do the art for the penguin mascot. Two years ago, they had a Star Wars theme and last year it was Harry Potter. This year, it’s Almost Famous. I have done 35 designs; the buttons sell for a dollar each. The theater district has donated more than $30,000. I love doing the designs … they are a blast!”
She sleeps from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. during the weekdays. “I sleep on the weekends. My husband of 14 years and I love to go to the movies and we have an annual pass to Disney. He’s such a saint as he puts up with everything. He tolerates and hugs me. He knew what I was all about from the get-go. I don’t think too much about what I do on my down time. We spend time with family while I recharge my batteries and look forward to the new school week. If you ask my students, they will tell you the following: I love all things Disney, I have an outstanding collection of toys in my classroom of which they are envious of, I am a little crazy (but honestly what art teacher isn’t), and that I’m a big kid at heart.”