Phoenix Academy Art Teacher Receives Camelot’s National Teacher of the Year Award
With so many extraordinary educators across Camelot Education’s network of schools, it is difficult to select just one to be honored as Teacher of the Year.
This year’s winner, Amanda Van Laar from Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, PA, stands out. She teaches art, and she teaches it in a way that expands the boundaries of how the subject is usually taught, so that every student is engaged.
“I try to integrate the real world into what I teach,” she said, “so in my class, we’ve touched on psychology through surrealism but also understanding the mind and how surrealism came about and having that intersect with Sigmund Freud and his science research. The students had to research cultural and social issues they’re exposed to; technology, beauty standards, economics, immigration, and violence. Through these cross-curricular activities, the class is more relevant to them then just painting a pretty picture.”
In earning her art education degree at Millersville University, Amanda was taught to teach fine arts, drawing techniques, watercolor techniques, painting and still life. Everything was focused on how the art looks. She says she has found her students wanted more from art.
“I tried teaching what I was taught, but I realized that students weren’t engaged. They became frustrated easily with technique, and they weren’t motivated to create art from a technical foundation. I decided at that point we can’t start with technique – we can’t start by looking at a still life. I have to find something they can relate to, so I had to change the basis of how I teach.”
Phoenix Academy Executive Director, Megan Misnik, said Amanda encourages her students to incorporate art into their writing. “When you observe her class, you expect to see kids drawing, but they’re actually writing essays or defending their position on a topic. It pushes them outside the world of just drawing.”
To Amanda, every step is about building a student’s confidence. They start by drawing something abstract. They gradually work their way toward reality, eventually coming up with an original idea.
“And finally, their confidence is blooming, and we go into something like a social issue where it’s more concrete and evidence-based,” she said. “They have to get their message across. The content has to match the intent of their artwork. In a mainstream school, you focus more on art. At Phoenix Academy, students need a way to express themselves that also builds confidence in their learning.”
An example of a project Amanda brought to her students involved applying real-world research in creating music album covers.
“I had them research a musician of their choice. They had to understand that person’s background, what their inspirations are, and what historical events were taking place at the time. They had to understand if they’re going to create an album cover for this performer, they need to know everything about them.”
Amanda came to Phoenix Academy right from college four years ago. She was the teacher of the year at the school two years ago, and she has done such an amazing job that she earned the recognition again this year, and this time she was selected as Camelot’s network-wide teacher of the year.
Misnik says Amanda is wonderful at building rapport with the students.
“The kids feel comfortable telling her things that they might not tell another staff member,” she explained. “Art is a creative process, and she’s able to tie in what’s happening in her classroom to get emotions out of students. Then once she sees what they’re drawing, she asks questions about their artwork and digs deeper to what’s going on in their personal lives. We had a student who was struggling with food. Amanda brought in grocery bags worth of stuff and discretely gave it to her. She didn’t do it for notoriety. She did it because she knows this is one of her students that needed help.”
Amanda, who is expecting her second child in September, said she would like her students to think of her as tough but nurturing and loving.
“I hold my students to a high, but achievable, standard,” she said. “Students have lost a lot of their confidence by the time they come to us. Our job is to help them believe in their own talent. One day in my class, a girl said to me, ‘I can’t do this.’ And I said, ‘if this is something that you know you can’t do, then I want you to own it, and I want you to tell me the same exact thing at the end of the semester.’ At the end of the semester she said, ‘I’m good at this.’ And I said ‘yes, you owned your confidence in it. You owned yourself.”
Congratulations to you, Amanda, and to every other Camelot teacher and staff member for another year well done! You all exemplify and perpetuate Camelot’s mission on a daily basis.
2019 Teacher of the Year Recipients:
Alexis Stewart, Camelot Academy
Cassandra Kemmerer, Excel Academy South
Melissa Holden, Camelot Academy East
Traci Baran, Cougar Academy
Jokeshua Fuller, Richey Academy
Andelain Gingalewski, Excel Academy North
Jaime Barnes, Aspira Academy
Jeffery Pugh, Stetson Academy
Aatiqah Ali, Excel Middle Years Academy
Jessica Siewert, Buehrle Academy
Amanda Van Laar, Phoenix Academy
Barbara Young, Camelot Academy of Chicago
Juan Funes, Excel Academy of Southwest
Brandon Love, Excel Academy of Englewood
Juan Rodriguez, Excel Academy of Roseland
Michelle Smith, Excel Academy of South Shore
Kristian Bivins, Camelot Academy of Escambia
Deborah Andrews, Delco Academy
Allyson Coryell, Rubino Academy