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.”

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