Friday, January 19, 2018

Faces of 501: Pilar Mejia

Dr. Pilar Mejía has dedicated herself to Topeka Public Schools for the past 13 years. She has worked as a teacher, an ELL teacher, an ELL Secondary Instructional Coach, Dual Language Coordinator, Assistant Principal and now as the Principal at Highland Park Central Elementary.

“Before I worked for Topeka Public Schools I earned a degree in Fashion Design in Cali, Colombia, where I am originally from. I also received a master’s in Product Management Fashion, in Milan, Italy. I taught foreign languages, English, Italian and Spanish at Berlitz Language Institute in Cali, Colombia. When I came to the United States I earned a teaching a degree from Washburn University, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from Kansas State University.”

“I went into teaching because I love children and I love learning. I wanted to share my passion for learning in hopes that I could transmit some of it to the students with whom I became in contact. I believe education changes and saves lives, and I wanted to be directly involved in providing to children the most powerful tools they could ever own.”

“I continued my education with an educational leadership doctorate because I am a lifelong learner, I wanted to expand my knowledge and, hopefully, my impact in the field of education.”

“My school, Highland Park Central is a gem! Its glow are the children's sparkly faces who show up to school every day, and do what they can to make the most out of it. And there are the staff... day in and day out, every adult in this building pours their heart out to ensure the students have the best day possible.”

“I want the students to be better than they were the day before. Hold your head up high and stay in school!” 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Faces of 501: Barbie Atkins

Barbie Atkins is in her fourth year teaching art to Robinson Middle School students, where she “builds confidence in young humans and creates odd things.” On the weekends, she volunteers at Stormont Vail Health snuggling babies in the NICU. In her time at Topeka Public Schools she has been honored with the first-year teacher Distinguished Staff Award and the state-wide new teacher Horizon Award. She has also led district professional development, new teacher orientation and is a part of the TPS Fine Arts Curriculum Team.

“I've always created. Art was my outlet growing up.  It helped me through a lot. I grew up in a small town in southeast Kansas. When I was little, I would walk myself to the library, sit on the floor in the art section surrounded by a mound of books and copy out of 'how to draw' manuals.  I always knew my life would involve art, but I didn't set out to become a teacher until after I graduated from college. I did some soul searching and decided that what I really wanted out of life was to work with kids. I'm at my happiest when I'm helping my students see their potential. I get to spend every day sculpting weird creatures, painting imaginary scenes, and generally being weird with some of the coolest humans I have ever met.”

“A long time ago, I read that middle school was a deciding factor for the future of students' interests. This is the age that kids fall in love with ideas and activities:  they decide now if they are going to be life-long lovers of the arts. I don't remember where I read this and I don't know if it's true, but it is an idea that has stuck with me throughout my education and career. This desire to show young people how wonderful the arts are drives my classroom. I have this amazing opportunity to open up an entire world of creativity, imagination, and discovery for my kids - I think that is unique to this age group.  People also tell me that you have to be crazy to teach middle school, I prefer the term eccentric. This age group can change the world:  they are smart, inventive, passionate and brave.”

“When I was an education student, I merely thought of myself as a future teacher.  Once I started teaching, I discovered that 'teacher' is merely a job title.  It is so much more than that. Most of my day is making sure that basic needs are getting met. The learning, the creating, the critical thinking:  none of that happens without all that other stuff out of the way first. This relationship does makes my job difficult though:  Last year at eighth grade graduation, I was supposed to present art awards to my departing students, but I ended up crying in front of, like, 500 people, I was just so proud of my little artists.”  

“Every day in art class is an act of bravery. In my opinion, artists are in this unique position that many other subjects don't find themselves in. Creating is a vulnerable activity and it takes a brave person to make something original and show it to others. This is one of the many beautiful things about art education and why it is so necessary at all levels of learning.  In class, we spend a lot of time working together to create a safe environment where students feel secure enough to try new things, make and work through mistakes, and then have the courage to show their hard work to their peers. This is a process and it has to be practiced every day. I model kindness in my interactions with students and staff, we talk about how we should treat each other, we come up with rules together and our critiques always include encouraging words.  We support each other because we know how hard it is to be so vulnerable.  My students might come to me saying ‘I can't do that’ and they leave saying ‘I'll just keep trying.’ I suppose that I'm somewhat of a broken record when it comes to that.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

Faces of 501: Jessica Johnston

Jessica Johnston is the associate principal at Highland Park High School and has worked for Topeka Public Schools for the past six years. This summer, she competed for the first time in the martial art jiu-jitsu competition at the Sunflower State Games, finishing with a silver medal. Brazilian jiu-jitsu shows that a smaller, weaker person can defend themselves against a bigger opponent by using their technique and taking the fight to the ground.

“I’ve been practicing jiu-jitsu for the past two years.  I originally began by taking a modern self-defense course through FIRE Defensive Skills here in Topeka. Jiu-jitsu was a major component of the class. It is designed to give a smaller person an advantage by using techniques and leverage if a fight would ever end up going to the ground. As a five foot, one-inch woman this is very important to me. As I became more and more involved in the class I found that I really loved grappling and started studying Gracie jiu-jitsu. When you first start anything you find that you have a lot to learn. It's difficult going against someone who has experience and size against you. The first time I realized that this was something I loved was when I was able to know what to do before my opponent moved. I was able to anticipate their next move based upon hours of practice.”

“I think Jiu-Jitsu makes anyone who learns it feel empowered. It is a way to defend yourself against someone bigger. I started self-defense to be able to be a role model for my daughter and to show her that girls can be just as powerful as boys.”

“I don’t advertise that I practice jiu-jitsu to the students, but the ones that hear about it are interested in the martial art and have lots of questions on what jiu-jitsu actually is. During my first competition I was extremely nervous but once I got on the mat everything that I had trained for came back. At FIRE we always say that you fight like you train, so I knew I was prepared. After training for the past two years I look at things differently. It helps with stress, it’s a killer workout and when you roll or spar you lose track of everything else around you. You can focus on the moment. There aren’t many times in our day that we can fully focus on just ourselves. That is the true reward. “

“What I want students to know is that they can find something they are passionate about, study it, practice it and teach it to others.”