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Braving the blank page

Kristyn Shea ’06 shares her journey from student to top teacher

>Kristyn Shea '06 with

Kristyn Shea ’06, art teacher at Oliver Ames High School in North Easton, Massachusetts, is certifiably one of the best. (She was selected as the Massachusetts Art Education Association 2021 Secondary Art Educator of the Year.) So, we asked about her approach to teaching and invited her to share some memorable moments—through art, of course. She wrote:

“Engaging in the artistic process cultivates patience, perceptiveness, and perseverance, with an understanding that there are multiple solutions to one problem. Students learn transferable core values from their experiences in the art classroom, including the capability to learn collaboratively, express creativity, embrace curiosity, make connections, produce original work, respect individuality, and develop grit.

“In creating art, many students struggle with believing in themselves, taking risks, and letting go. In the beginning stages of an artwork, many are hesitant to make a mark in fear of making mistakes. Overcoming obstacles or ‘mistakes’ is what allows students’ creativity and imagination to grow. I often find myself saying to my students ‘have no fear’ or ‘dive in’ as a way of coaxing and encouraging them. Once students do put their fears aside and let the artistic process take over, there’s no stopping them and the end result is so rewarding.”

Headshot of professional in red shirt smiling at camera.

Who were you and what did you want to be on your first day at UMass?

I was a bundle of nerves on my first day at UMass. I overprepared to make sure that on my first day of foundational art classes, I had everything I needed to be the best art student I could be. I was a sight to see walking to class with my petite stature overloaded with my backpack, portfolio, art tube, and art bin.

Pencil drawing of car keys on a lanyard sitting in driver’s seat

How did you feel on your first day as an art teacher?

I was once again a bundle of nerves, much like my first day at UMass, but multiply that by a hundred! I had stowed my book bag in the back seat of my car. When I parked in the teachers’ parking lot, I stepped out of my car, closed the driver’s door, and turned to open the back door to grab my book bag. Much to my dismay, I had locked myself out of my car without my teacher’s book bag, classroom keys, and ID card. Luckily, my mom came to the rescue with my spare key!

Pencil drawing of door with a window that sees into classroom. A flat art portfolio case leans against the wall to the left of the door. A plaque also to the left reads “Ms. Shea”. The writing on the door reads “Home is Where the Art Room is”.

What is the most amazing thing you have received from a student?

This past year I received a note from a student that said “once the art room steals your heart, it never lets go.” I couldn’t agree more. Oliver Ames art students have called the art room their home, going so far as to call their peers their “art family.” It is my hope that students feel welcome and safe in order to dig deep and create from the heart. Over the years, we have been able to celebrate each other’s artistic discoveries and accomplishments, and gather during times of despair, all as an art family.

Pencil drawing of a hand painting a signature on a canvas sitting on easel. The signature reads “K. Shea”.

What was the first piece of “real” art that you made—that made you feel like “an artist”?

It is not so much about the first piece of “real” art that I made as much as it is about the moment I was told by my teacher to “sign your name.” It was my first time using oil paints, which I fell in love with, and knowing that I completed a painting worthy of a signature was when I first felt like an artist.

Black and white realistic pencil drawing on two hands holding a mason jar of fireflies on a black background. Text on mason jar reads “Art Room ‘Ah-Ha’ Moments”.

How do you feel when a student finally “gets it”?

It is an honor to be on the creative journey with my students as their art teacher. If I could bottle a feeling, it would be the moment everything clicks for a student—the “ah-ha” moment. Those moments are what keep me going as a teacher; I am able to see the student light up creatively and become excited about the task at hand.

View award-winning artwork from Shea’s students at Oliver Ames High School.