Churchill art teacher honoured with national awardJuly 20, 2022
A Collège Churchill High School visual arts teacher has been recognized with a national award for her contributions to the field of art education.
The Canadian Society for Education Through Art selected teacher Maria Pisichko as the 2022 recipient for the Canadian Art Educator of the Year Award (Grades 9-12). She will be formally presented with her award at the society’s national conference in Ottawa on Oct. 14-16.
Ms. Pisichko, who retired in June, had been teaching at Churchill since 2001. Previously, she conducted research for her Masters of Arts in Curriculum Studies (University of British Columbia, 1997) at Wellington School, and also worked at Sargent Park School.
Dr. Joanna Black, a Professor of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the University of Manitoba, nominated Ms. Pisichko for the award largely on the strength of her dedication to a unique inclusive support program at Churchill.
The school offers students with a wide variety of needs the opportunity for visual arts instruction; the program is tailored to each student’s individual needs.
“We don’t do crafts as much as we explore different types of media,” Ms. Pisichko said. “We work on their fine-motor skills, vocabulary development, basic numeracy…and you can do that very easily when you are teaching visual arts, and even music and drama.”
Ms. Pisichko said the program’s successes have been due to the commitment of staff and administration, including current Churchill Principal Ryan Hughes.
“Mr. Hughes has always been generous; even at the last minute when I asked for soap stone and tools, he came through. He’s always been very supportive.”
Art as a vehicle for personal growth
Ms. Pisichko said one of most rewarding aspects of teaching art was watching students develop as artists and learners.
“I like to see the students grow. My biggest satisfaction is when they take my guidance to heart and they trust themselves. I do have expectations, but they are not unreasonable. Students are very aware there are guidelines to follow, but never, ever is their creativity impeded. It’s just a matter of ‘are you developing a good skill base to express your ideas, and how can I help you?’”
A lot Ms. Pisichko’s classroom work was about instilling students with the confidence to focus on their own growth and goals as artists.
“If you reflect as an adult on your own art career, early childhood you are playing, you’re drawing, you’re innocent. You’re oblivious to the world and just like what you’re drawing. Then all of a sudden you go to school, and you see somebody else drawing a little bit better than you…and suddenly you stop drawing, or you stop painting,” Ms. Pisichko said. “So when we get students in at the Grade 7 level, some are very confident with their drawing, their painting or working with clay and there are those who are very anxious, because it’s a very visual product that they are creating. It’s my job to try to set them at ease and say ‘don’t look at anybody else’s work. Just follow the instructions and you’ll be fine.’”
While students may have varying levels of ability, Ms. Pisichko never marked on talent; instead, the emphasis was always on students’ effort and commitment to learning artistic techniques and tools.
“When it comes to drawing for example, it’s not about talent, it’s all about skill building—learning the tricks and creating magic with your drawing tools. So students learn all about different pencils, from 2B all the way even to 8B shading pencils. They discover that graphite comes in different thicknesses they didn’t even dream of…ultimately, they learn how to shade in different techniques, and that gives them options on what to focus on when they do a final drawing.
“A lot of it just has to do with skill as opposed to talent…it’s all about practise.”
Many of Ms. Pisichko’s favourite pieces of student artwork still adorn the offices and hallways of Churchill to this day. While being interviewed for this story, the teacher was eager to tour the school to show off some of her students’ work.
“I get so excited when the final piece is produced and it just looks divine. It just looks wonderful whether it’s a clay piece, a drawing or a painting.”
Outside of the classroom, Ms. Pisichko has taught art to orphans in Europe and the Ukraine, as well as pediatric cancer patients in Ottawa. She also served on the CSEA executive for many years, and has made presentations about Churchill’s inclusive arts programming at a national level.
In her retirement, Ms. Pisichko plans to keep busy; that includes focusing on her own artwork, as well as exploring the possibility of online lessons for elementary students.
Ms. Pisichko’s 1997 Master’s Thesis was on the concept of a “mark-making book” as a catalyst for supporting parental involvement in art education for early childhood students; young students explore and reflect on art, and learn to self-express, through their marks and scribblings in these mark-making books. Ms. Pisichko plans to continue exploring that concept in retirement.
“I’m still learning from the kids.”