High School Art Teacher Larry Taguba with his student, Kayleigh Waters, at Carnegie Hall in June 2010. Kayleigh won a 2010 National Silver Medal for a drawing, Right Between the Eyes. (Credit: Stuart Ransom).

Almost 5,000 miles away from our main headquarters in New York City, students in Larry Taguba’s art classes are submitting work to the Scholastic Art Awards (and winning!). In addition to teaching high school art at Leilehua High School in Oahu, Hawai’i, Larry is also the President of the Hawai’i Art Education Association. One of the toughest challenges he’s faced over the course of his 33-year career, however, was temporarily losing his passion for teaching. Here’s how he recovered it and established a nationally competitive high school art department.

About nineteen years ago I returned to the island of Oahu to teach at my alma mater, Leilehua High School. But it wasn’t long after I started my new position that I lost my passion for the job.

The reason this happened had little to do with teaching itself and was a matter of priorities. My main priority, in this case, was taking care of my aging parents. I went to work just before the morning bell rang, went home early, and did nothing outside the regular classroom routine for my students. Only after this difficult but memorable chapter in my life came to a close was I ready to commit myself to building up the art program I neglected.

Leilehua is a large public high school located in community with a high unemployment rate and a median income much lower than the state average. Part of my plan to revive the program involved taking a more active role in our state’s art education community. Becoming involved in the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards was just the opportunity. In 1998, I assisted with our state’s regional adjudication and the following year, I started submitting student work. I’ve been involved ever since.

Our initial entries produced no award winners. But that changed in 2000 when we had our first breakthrough student winner, and each successive year brought more honors. The impact on my students and the program was profound; the quality of their work rose dramatically. Suddenly, our school had a “reputation” and our students, more often than not, rose to the occasion. I even had one stand-out student whose mother told me she decided to send her daughter here because of our art program’s reputation.

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Larry Taguba’s art students post with their Award-winning works. From left: Naomi Pastor with her Gold Medal-winning Photo, “Runaway;” Brandon Maghanoy with his Gold Medal-winning photo, “Insecurity;” and Geren Adolfo with his Gold Medal-winning self-portrait, “Geren.”  (Photos courtesy of Larry Taguba.)

I am proud that my students have faired well against other public and private schools with far more resources than us. Though it should not be surprising that talented students can be found here, most did not feel they could use their talent beyond high school. If there has been a change over the years, it’s that my students now believe they can have a future in the arts.

I’m mindful of the difference that a good or bad teacher can make in the classroom, but I think that a student ultimately fails or succeeds based on his or her own personal initiative. The most challenging aspect of teaching these days is dealing with mixed perceptions. We get too much blame when students are “left behind” and too much credit when they “race to the top.” I often remind my students that I am not the one who pushes their pencil or brush around when creating their work. When they are recognized with an award, it’s a validation of their own efforts. I emphasize that winning awards is not the sole goal of arts education, but the Scholastic Awards serve a vital purpose by providing students with recognition and a platform by which they can measure their artistic skills against their peers.

For the most part, my creative endeavors take a backseat to what has otherwise been a fulfilling teaching career. I believe what I have been able to achieve with my students has helped me find a rhythm that has kept me looking forward and given my teaching momentum. Former students regularly contact me and provide me with valuable feedback. One email sent to me by a 2006 graduate who is presently attending New York’s School of Visual Arts was particularly moving. He wrote: “I never felt passionate about anything…but lately I’ve been thinking that I’m becoming more like you. And by that, I mean I’m becoming more passionate.” In the classroom, I’m not the most eloquent speaker nor do I possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the arts. But I have come to believe that the secret to my success is that I’m finally becoming the teacher people think I am.

Read more about Larry Taguba and his 2010 Award-winning students in this article from the Central Oahu News.

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