Spotlight: Shalisha Thomas (AR '19)March 6, 2020
When Shalisha Thomas (AR ’19) was in high school, the art room was her refuge, a place where she could express herself and felt at ease: “I strive daily to create that type of environment for my students.” Shalisha won the 2019-20 Arkansas Milken Award at Pine Bluff High School on February 6, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: Why should high schoolers study art?
Shalisha Thomas (AR ’19): To help them gain an appreciation for art in the world around them and to explore ways to express themselves. It also builds confidence. I am always amazed to see students who were unsure about their abilities at the beginning of the year feeling more comfortable and confident with creating art at the end.
Creating art is a great way to sharpen your problem-solving skills. This can be beneficial when dealing with the content in core subjects and problems that may arise in their everyday life. I hope that their experiences with creating art in my classroom helps to enhance their artistic abilities. I hope that my students leave my classroom feeling more confident and knowledgeable about the concepts of art.
MFF: You strive to connect art education to students’ core subjects. Why is this important?
Shalisha: I want my students to see how every core subject is represented in art. We were working on writing artist statements and one of my students asked, “Is this an English class?” I said yes. I incorporate content from core subjects in my curriculum because I see the benefit of making that connection for my students. I believe it enhances their experience in art.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Shalisha: There is never a dull day with my high school students. They are funny, energetic, outspoken and very expressive. They keep me going, even when I’m exhausted. I enjoy interacting with them and getting to know more about them. I love to see them create, find solutions to problems and apply new skills. I love to witness those “aha” moments! That is one of the greatest parts about my job.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Shalisha: I have wanted to be a teacher since I was young. My mother, Mrs. Shirley Thomas, sparked this interest. Although she is not a certified teacher, she was the first teacher I ever worked with. She spent time teaching me how to do things that would prepare me for school. She was always willing to help me with my homework. My mom was gentle, patient and supportive as I worked through problems (and she still is). I remember times like this when I am working with my students.
I had great teachers along the way, so I am not surprised that I followed in their footsteps. Teaching allows me to be in a position to help my students, offer advice and encourage them to work to their full potential. When I was in school, art was a relief for me. It allowed me to express myself and practice creating things that were a challenge for me. I remember feeling at ease whenever I entered the art room. I strive daily to create that type of environment for my students.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Shalisha: It was unforgettable. I remember standing in front of a classroom full of seventh graders on my first day. I was nervous and excited. There were some students who were not on board with the norms I enforced in my classroom because they kept comparing me to their sixth grade art teacher. One of the most challenging parts of my first year was making sure that I consistently enforced and modeled classroom expectations and procedures, even when some students resisted it. I had to learn how to be firm yet gentle. As the year progressed, it paid off. Although I felt as though I was on an island at times (because I was the only art teacher on campus), other teachers offered advice and helped me navigate through my first year. I learned a lot of great things that year that helped me become a better teacher.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Shalisha: Some of my favorite teachers are my third grade teacher, Mrs. Josephine Hayes, and my high school art teacher, Mrs. Virginia Hymes. These women were instrumental in my decision to become a teacher. I admired their strength, the love they had for their students and the way they pushed their students to do their best. They had a way of encouraging all students to make them feel like they could do anything. This was very important for a reserved individual like myself. I would often “disappear” in a room full of students, but these women saw me. Their influence on my life will never be forgotten.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Shalisha: My principal informed me that he wanted me to attend the assembly to discuss a few things about the art department. When the purpose of the assembly was revealed, I was getting excited and preparing to cheer for one of my colleagues. I know that there are so many teachers on our campus who deserve recognition for the great things they do for our students.
I was overwhelmed with emotion after my name was called. Not only was it amazing to be recognized, but I was shocked when I realized that I would receive the monetary award. It felt so surreal.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Shalisha: Immediately after the assembly, a few students stayed behind to offer their congratulations. One of my students had tears in her eyes, and that meant so much to me. When I returned to my room, I realized that my email was full of encouraging messages from students that I was not able to talk to after the assembly. Many of my former students told me that I deserve this Award, and that made me feel honored to know that they think so highly of me.
So many students made suggestions about what I should buy with the money because they felt that just letting it sit in my bank account was not good enough. Most of them said they were surprised that I showed up to work the next day because they were under the impression that I was “rich.” I had to stop to discuss the cost of living to help them understand that the Award money was not enough to live off of. I still hear students talking about the Award and asking if they can “borrow a few dollars.”
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Shalisha: For myself, I define success as being able to create relevant, meaningful lessons that pique my students’ interest and increase engagement. As for students, success looks different for each of them, but it’s being willing to learn new skills, learning from their mistakes and consistently working toward their goals.
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