Teacher of the Year Finalist Athanasia Kyriakakos on Cultivating Tomorrow’s Leaders Through the Arts
Athanasia "Sia" Kyriakakos works as a visual arts teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore. This school, known as Mervo, is the largest high school in the city, but its emphasis has historically been on athletics and trade programs rather than the fine arts, which is a disparity in Baltimore, according to Sia. Despite this, Sia’s students come to her class with eagerness to learn.
As a successful working artist, Sia discovered her passion for teaching when she filled in as a substitute teacher for a sick friend at a Saturday morning arts program. This unexpected experience made her realize that she had a natural calling for teaching. However, she did not become the National Teacher of the Year, as the title was awarded to Sydney Chaffee, a humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Massachusetts, making her the first charter school teacher to receive this honor.
Sia, along with the other three finalists for Teacher of the Year, participated in interviews with in March while they were in Washington, D.C. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
: How did you decide to become a teacher?
Sia: I have always had a love and talent for art. While in college, I encountered the common saying that those who can’t do, teach. However, I continued to devote myself to art, participating in nonprofit organizations, creating art, and engaging in various artistic endeavors to establish myself as a successful artist. At that time, I had a friend who worked for a nonprofit and taught in at-risk communities. She frequently asked me to join her in teaching, but I always declined, believing that teaching was not for me. I wanted to make my mark on the world through my art.
One day, my friend was too ill to contact her students, so she implored me to step in and teach in her place just for that one day. Reluctantly, I agreed. I arrived at the designated location, which turned out to be a semi-basement garage flooded with ankle-deep water. We were supposed to create art on a Ping-Pong table. I placed the necessary art supplies on the table, which also had a bell. My friend instructed me to go through the neighborhood at 8 o’clock, ringing the bell to gather the kids. Doubtful, I embarked on the task, expecting no one to show up due to the cold weather and the flooded basement.
To my surprise, at 8 o’clock, as I walked through the neighborhood ringing the bell, children emerged from the row houses in their robes and galoshes, with Pop-Tarts in hand. They joined me, and we spent the entire day creating art together. It was an amazing experience, and I realized that I possessed the ability to unlock the potential of others. The following Monday, I enrolled in Central Connecticut State University to pursue a teaching career, and now I live that moment of connection with my students every day.
As the National Teacher of the Year, you have the opportunity to advocate for a specific cause. What would your platform be?
What aspects of your classroom or your students do you wish the public were aware of?
… The potential of urban children is often underestimated. People tend to focus on the negative aspects of their culture, but my students are truly remarkable. They are beautiful individuals with dreams and ambitions, and they are determined to make a positive impact on society, their communities, and each other. They are truly incredible.
… I have established an exceptional program at Mervo. How? Well, partly because I have been dedicated to teaching there for three consecutive years, which is quite rare. Why should there be constant turnover? What our students need is stability, and more often than not, we, the teachers, become that anchor of stability in their lives. We embody the promise of a better future and have the ability to unleash their potential. By being there consistently for three years, my students know that when they enter my classroom, they will leave with valuable knowledge and skills. I teach this class in both ninth and twelfth grade…
They are filled with excitement, eagerly looking at me, ready to learn. These are the students I see. They leave behind all the hardships that plague their lives – poverty, segregation, and the harsh realities of the war on drugs. Yet, they show up every day with a thirst for knowledge. Let me emphasize this – I am there for them, waiting every single day.
Education has become a highly debated topic, especially since the beginning of the year. What advice would you give President Trump and Secretary DeVos as they move forward?
You know, every experience teaches us valuable lessons. Each day, each year, I reflect on my teaching practices. I must say, teaching is both humbling and incredibly rewarding. I believe that this journey is a learning experience for everyone involved. This is a new government, trying to navigate the complexities of education policies and systems.
I would love to extend a formal invitation to both President Trump and Secretary DeVos to visit Mervo and witness the incredible work our public schools are doing for our students on a daily basis. Come and sit with me in my classroom, and I will teach them both how to perceive the world from different angles. They will witness firsthand that art and the teaching of art extend far beyond basic concepts of lines and colors. It is about nurturing vital life skills such as perseverance and resilience.
… We are nurturing culturally aware individuals who will become valuable contributors to society in the future. These students are our future leaders. I want them to witness the impactful work we do in the classroom, particularly in the art room. I believe the arts are being undervalued and potentially marginalized.
Am I mistaken? I’m uncertain. They need to see the remarkable achievements of our students and understand how it shapes their character. Moreover, we are preparing the workforce of tomorrow. Our classrooms go beyond teaching skills… we are fostering collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving – qualities that the future workforce demands. And we are doing this in the art room, as well as in every subject across the nation.
They should visit our public schools and truly witness their excellence… This is about joining forces for the sake of our children. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, as long as they have the best interests of my students at heart.
What has been your most memorable moment as a teacher?
I’m genuinely thrilled about the opportunities I have been given. Being recognized as the Maryland Teacher of the Year has allowed me to engage with politicians and contribute as a voice in discussions surrounding the ESSA committee. I feel honored. However, one concern lingers – that my absence during these engagements may affect the quality of instruction my students receive. I worry that they might not receive the same level of education that I strive to provide if I am not present in the classroom.
They are currently taking turns reading the prompt and it feels as if I am standing right behind them, peering over their shoulder and gazing directly at the paper. The paper appears sloppy and handwritten, filled with everyday language and lacking proper capitalization. It reminds me of the papers I received at the beginning of the school year. As I glance up, I witness a multitude of kids flooding into the room, numbering in the hundreds. I am taken aback, wondering who these kids are and where they are coming from. I question whether there are no substitute teachers available, and if all the students are being sent directly to me. As I observe them, I begin to recognize my former students from my first job in Baltimore City, who have now transformed into young adults.
Among the sea of faces, I spot Julius dressed in his police uniform and Lachelle wearing nursing scrubs. Then, I catch sight of Darius, who used to attend my second school before it closed down. He is now a professional jockey, racing horses. Rajiv, who relocated from Germany, stands proudly in his Army uniform. In addition, I see numerous unfamiliar students, whose faces are unfamiliar to me, yet deep in my heart, I know they were once my students.
Emerging from the crowd, Brandon appears before me, a character I will discuss later on. Brandon is currently studying engineering at Morgan State University. He positions himself between me and the student who is reading. Following suit, Daja, a former student of mine from three years ago who aspires to become an art teacher, steps forward to stand between me and Brandon.
As I glance around, I notice my colleagues standing nearby, including some of my former high school teachers. In that moment, I realize that I must place my trust in the work I have dedicated myself to throughout the years. It is through my role as a teacher that I am shaping the future’s promises and leaders, as my own students transition into the ranks of educators. Then, abruptly, my dream comes to an end.
I immediately call Daja, knowing she would have some free time in the morning, and I ask her, "Daja, can you please go to school? I won’t be able to make it today. We were planning to do portraiture. Could you teach them in the same way I taught you? I’ll just come by to deliver a letter outlining my expectations." Daja responds with, "I got you, Ms. K." When I arrive at school, I find that I don’t even need to read the letter. Daja is already leading the class at the front of the room.
As I observe her taking charge of my classroom and my students, I am flooded with an overwhelming sense of pride. It becomes clear to me that as teachers, our role is to foster trust, hope, and meaningful relationships.
As for Brandon, he was an intermittent presence in my class. He attended sporadically, showing up for a week, then disappearing for weeks on end. There was something captivating about him. He possessed a deep curiosity and enthusiasm for certain things. He had participated in a photography program the year before. So, I approached Brandon and asked, "Hey, Brandon, can I have those photographs? Let’s showcase them in an exhibition together."
There was an unexplainable quality about Brandon. I brought the two photographs he had taken, along with ten other students, to an off-site exhibition. It became a joyful celebration of the students’ talents within the city, an incredible sight to behold. When we arrived, the venue was filled with hundreds of people. Brandon found himself being interviewed and realized that he had a voice worth hearing. He began connecting with other young artists and like-minded individuals.
After that experience, Brandon started attending school every day. Not only that, by the end of the year, he was organizing his own shows and creating opportunities for his friends.
Following my dream, I made a phone call to both Daja and Brandon. I said, "Brandon, could you go in and take those black-and-white photographs like we did before?" On Thursday, he was there, capturing photographs and printing them out for the kids. Even after his graduation, he remains deeply involved in the school community, pursuing his passion for photography and engaging in various remarkable endeavors.
And that is precisely the reason why I have such a deep passion for teaching.