Teacher of the Year Finalist Athanasia Kyriakakos on Cultivating Tomorrow’s Leaders Through the Arts

Council of Chief State School Officers
Athanasia “Sia” Kyriakakos’s job is something of a misnomer: She teaches visual arts at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore.
Mervo, as it’s known, is the largest high school in Baltimore. Opened in 1953, it was long recognized more for its athletics and trade programs than its fine-arts education, which is an equity issue in Baltimore, she said.
Despite those challenges, her students come to class excited to learn, Kyriakakos said.
They leave at the door everything that makes their lives difficult,” she said.
A busy working artist, Kyriakakos realized she had a second calling after agreeing at the last minute to substitute teach for a sick friend at her Saturday morning arts program.
In the end, Kyriakakos wasn’t the National Teacher of the Year winner. Sydney Chaffee, a high school humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Massachusetts, was named the National Teacher of the Year last month. She’s the first honoree from a charter school.
(74 Interview: Teacher of the Year: The First-Ever Charter Honoree Talks Social Justice, Trauma, and Accountability)  
Kyriakakos, and the other three Teacher of the Year finalists, spoke with The 74 in early March when they were in Washington, D.C., for their final interviews.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The 74: How did you get into teaching?
Kyriakakos: I love art. I’m great at art. I’m fantastic at it, actually. So, when I was in college, I was fed this story that we hear — those who can’t, teach; and those who can, do. So that was always in the back of my mind … I was helping running nonprofits, making art, exhibiting, doing press releases, you name it. I was doing whatever it needs in order to be a successful artist. And I had this friend who ran a nonprofit … She would go into these at-risk communities and teach. It was that long ago that there were no cell phones at the time. She would ask me every weekend, “Hey, Sia, come with me, let’s go teach together.” I was like, “No, not for me! I’m doing … I’m making art! Making my art … my mark on the world.”
This one time she couldn’t actually call her students because she was really sick, and she came to me like, “Please?” She called me, “Go in, teach whatever you want. It’s just one day. I can’t get in touch with them.”
Anyway, so I arrived Saturday with my tubs and my galoshes, and I go and it was like … it was a semi-basement garage that was donated to the neighborhood for this cause. So I go and I lift up the garage and I go in and it was ankle-deep water and we were supposed to make art on the Ping-Pong table. So I put the vats of paper on the Ping-Pong table. On the table there was a bell. She told me, at exactly 8 o’clock, take that bell and go through the neighborhood. It was in the back of the neighborhood where there’s alleyways, and ring the bell and the kids will come. I was like, there’s no way anybody’s coming … It was fall, it was nippy. I mean, there was water in that basement!
So, 8 o’clock, I lift the garage doors again. I take the bell and I start walking through the neighborhood. Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. And out of those row houses came the kids. Pop-Tarts in hand, robes and galoshes. So they came and we made paper all day … It was incredible, the connection that I made with those kids that day… I realized that within myself I held the key to unlocking other people’s potential. That following Monday, because it was early fall, I went and signed up at Central Connecticut State University to become a teacher. And it’s amazing because I get to live that moment every day with those kids.
The National Teacher of the Year has a sort of platform she advocates during her year in office. What would yours be?
…Teaching is so complex, but for me specifically, being an art teacher, I think education is a civil right. I live in Baltimore City, and arts education is an issue of equity that very often is not being met. So, I think through building really strong, sustainable relationships and trust between all of the stakeholders, starting with the kids and then moving up to the parents, community, administrators, every stakeholder … that’s how we can open discussion and share our stories and our needs that our kids have, and give as equitable an education as every child deserves in order to have a productive life.
What do you wish the public knew about your classroom or your students?
… People underestimate the urban kids … They take everything that’s bad in a culture, and that’s what we see. But my kids are beautiful. They are amazing human beings with dreams and aspirations, and they want to do great things for society, for their communities, for each other. They are just incredible.
… I have built this amazing program at Mervo, right? At Mergenthaler. Partly because I have been able to be there for three years continually, which is crazy. Why would we have all this turnaround? What our kids need is stability, and very often, we, the teachers of every classroom, I would say, in the United States, become that lifeline of stability. We become the promise of tomorrow … and unlocking that potential. So, me being there for three years in a row, the kids know that if they come into my room they will leave with this product and they come in ready. This is a ninth-grade class that I teach, and I teach it in 12th grade ….
They’re so excited. They are looking at me and they are almost jittery in excitement and getting to learn. That is the student that I see. They leave at the door everything that makes their lives difficult: poverty, segregation, the war on drugs. All of that is on their backs, but they come every day to learn. And let me tell you, I’m there for them, every day waiting for them.
Education has become a very contentious issue, particularly since the start of the year. What would you advise President Trump and Secretary DeVos to do as they’re moving forward?
You know, every experience is a learning experience. Every day, every year, I reflect on my practice. I have to say teaching is the most humbling experience of my life and the most rewarding. I think that this is also a learning experience for everybody. It’s a new government. They’re learning their way around the city, their way around policies.
I would love to formally invite them both to come to Mervo and see what amazing things our public schools are doing for our kids every day. Sit down with me in my classroom and I will teach them both how to do a three-quarter view and they will see that art and teaching art goes beyond learning about lines and color and whatever. It has to do with building up life skills, like perseverance and resilience.
… We’re developing culturally sensitive citizens that are going to become productive citizens tomorrow. These kids are going to be tomorrow’s leaders. I want them to see what we do every day in the classroom, in the art room specifically. I think the arts are on the butcher block.
Am I wrong? I’m not sure. To see what amazing things our kids are doing, what great things are coming out of it, and how it’s building their character. Plus, we are building tomorrow’s workforce. What we are doing in the classroom, beyond the skills … they’re becoming collaborative, communicative, critical thinkers, problem solvers, all these things that tomorrow’s workforce wants. We are doing that in the art room. And it’s happening across the nation in every room in every subject.
I think they need to come and visit our public schools and see how wonderful they are … This is about coming together for the kids. I don’t care who’s in charge so long as their hearts are with my kids.
What’s been your best moment teaching?
I’m so excited about this opportunity. I’m [Maryland] Teacher of the Year, I get to talk to politicians, I get to talk about being in the ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] committee. I’m often the only teacher voice in those things. I’m so honored. But often what happens is, I’m taken away from my classroom. I get worried that my students are not going to be getting … the same instruction that I would give them if I was there.
So about two weeks ago I had a dream. In my dream I walked into my classroom, expecting only about 15 kids, but as I walk in my classroom’s huge. I’m standing over there, there’s like 50 kids sitting in rows. I notice that they’re taking turns to stand up at the front of the room and read a prompt. Now this prompt that they’re reading is the same prompt that I’ve always given at the beginning of the school year to every student I’ve ever taught in Baltimore City … The questions are, “Who are you? Where do you come from? What are your dreams and aspirations? Where are you going to be five years from now? How are you going to get there?”
So they’re taking turns reading the prompt and it’s as if I'm standing right behind them on their shoulder, looking right into that paper. It’s like slovenly and handwritten and full of colloquialisms and no capitalization, exactly the way I get these papers at the beginning of the school year. Then I’m looking up and there’s kids streaming in, hundreds of them. I’m like, “Who are these kids? Where are they coming from? Are there no subs in the school? Are they sending them all to me?” And as I look at them, I start to recognize my kids from my first job in Baltimore City, six years ago. Now they’re young adults.
There’s Julius, and he’s wearing his police uniform. I see Lachelle in her nursing scrubs. Then, from my second school that they closed, too, I see Darius, he’s a jockey now, racing professionally, horses. And Rajiv has come from Germany and he’s in his Army uniform. And then I also see all these kids I don’t recognize but in my heart I know they’re my students.
And emerging from the crowd now comes Brandon, who I’m going to tell you about later. Brandon is now an engineering student at Morgan State University. He comes and he … stands between me and the student reading. Then Daja, who used to be my student three years ago, she wants to be an art teacher, she comes and stands between me and Brandon.
And I look over, and right here, [there’s] my colleagues. Amongst them, I see my teachers from high school and I realize that I had at that moment … in my sleep, that I had to trust in the work I had been doing all these years. That what I’m doing as a teacher is cultivating tomorrow’s promise and leaders, as my students come and join the ranks of teachers … then I woke up.
I called up Daja, because I knew she had time in her morning, and I say, “Daja, can you please go to school? I’m not going to be there today. We’re doing portraiture. Would you please teach them the way I taught you? I’m just going to come in and drop off a letter with my expectations.” Daja’s like, “I got you, Ms. K.” And when I show up at school, I didn’t need to read that letter. Daja was already at the front of the room teaching.
As I watched her take over my classroom and my students, I was overwhelmed with so much pride. Because what we do as teachers … we build trust, we build hope, and we build these sustaining relationships.
… Brandon used to come here and there in class. I had him a couple years back. He would come. Then he wouldn’t come for a week. Then he’d come again. Then not come for two, three weeks. There was something about him. He was really curious and very excited about certain things. He had done some photography program … the year before. I’m like, “Hey, Brandon, can I have those photographs? Let’s put them in an exhibition together.”
There was something about him, though. We went. I took these two photographs, and then I took another 10 kids with me. I took them out of the building to this exhibition. It was like this celebration… of the kids’ talents in the city, which is so amazing to see when it happens. When he got there, it was hundreds of people. People interviewed him and he realized he had something to say, that somebody wanted to hear it, right? And he started meeting other young artists and other kids.
When he left that experience, Brandon started coming to school every day. Not only that, by the end of the year he was setting up his own shows and he was creating those opportunities for his friends.
… I called that morning, after my dream, and I told Daja, and I called Brandon. I said, “Brandon, can you go in and take those black-and-white photographs like we did?” He was there on Thursday, taking photographs and printing them out for the kids. He is so involved in the school community even though he’s graduated. He’s doing photography and all these amazing things.
At some point, I asked him what clicked for you. He goes, “Well, you showed me another way to exist. You showed me the man that I wanted to become by modeling. … I can’t phrase it the right way, you have such high expectations for the kids, but you do it with so much love that everybody wants to give you 100 percent. When the students succeed, you are so happy and we all succeed. And I want to do that for my community.”
And that’s why I love to teach.

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