Art teachers are an invaluable part of any school community. An art teacher has the unique ability to let every student’s creative side shine, regardless of their artistic ability. For the past 32 years at Hicksville High School, one art teacher has been tirelessly working with students both beginner and advanced, reaching into their artistic potential to bring out talents they didn’t know they had and challenging them in ways that alter their perception of the world around them. Now, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Beth Atkinson received a citation from the Town of Oyster Bay recognizing the work she’s done for the Hicksville High School art community.
“Hicksville’s always been home for me,” said Atkinson, a Northport resident. “Hicksville’s always been very good to me, I wouldn’t have left it for the world. The demographics have changed tremendously over 32 years, but Hicksville always has great kids.”
Since 1986, Atkinson has taught students in each grade nearly every genre of art imaginable at the high school—painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, jewelry making, bookbinding and drawing, just to name a few. Atkinson said she owes her diversity to her husband who had urged her to take classes so she could indulge in something for herself.
“That was probably one of the best things I ever did because it got me really motivated to continue to make my own art and explore a bunch of different areas,” she said. “That was a big turning point in my life when I started to take classes again because I started to come into my own as an artist. It just got me to try a bunch of different mediums and different techniques and things that I probably never would have done if I hadn’t gone out and explored a little bit more.”
Along with teaching, Atkinson also supports her students in their artistic endeavors outside of regular school hours. Decorating the school for junior prom, creating art for a variety of charities and participating in the Olympics of the Visual Arts are just a few of the extra-curriculars she takes the time to advise her students in. With her retirement beginning in June, Atkinson said it’s the appreciation her students have for everything they do that she’ll miss the most.
“We have a really good art department and we do a lot of really great things. I will miss [doing] those things with them,” she said. “My first year teaching I got called into the principal’s office and they asked me if I would be an advisor for a class. That was the best thing I ever did because then I got to know the students on a totally different level. I don’t think you can beat those experiences when you can see the kids in a different light. I think my relationship with my students, my ability to be able to relate to them, has been the best part of teaching to me.”
Although her husband tells her she spends more time in Hicksville than she does in her own hometown, Atkinson manages to find enough free time to create her own works of art and exhibits her creations in the Firefly Gallery, a space in Northport for local artists to display artwork of all kinds. Primarily a printmaker, Atkinson also creates assemblage sculptures.
“A lot of those [landscape print] kind of pieces come from my travels,” explained Atkinson, who had traveled to nearly every state with her parents to visit national parks—an endeavor her and her husband would like to accomplish with their own children. “The assemblages that I do have a lot more personal inspiration. I keep all sorts of little things and I put them together and make sculptures out of them.”
Owing it to her active involvement in the art community and the commitment and dedication she has given to her students, Atkinson has racked up numerous recognitions, including the New York State Art Educator of the Year award, Long Island Educator of the Year award, a Harvard Club of Long Island Educator of Distinction award and, of course, her recent citation from the Town of Oyster Bay.
“It’s wonderful to get [awards] and I’m really very grateful, but I’m kind of like, ‘Why are you honoring me? There’s a lot of people that do what I do,’” she said. “I like doing the stuff that I do because I like to do it, not because I want to win an award. I do it because I feel that it’s my job as a teacher to be doing these things. Hicksville is my family and I treat my students here as if they’re my family, but I feel that that’s the responsibility of a teacher.”
Come the end of the school year when she enters retirement, Atkinson said she has no plans to stop teaching, she just won’t be teaching by a bell anymore. An active member of the New York State Art Teachers Association, Atkinson teaches professional development workshops for teachers and said she will probably teach workshops through other art organizations. Other post-retirement plans include spending more time with her children who live scattered across the country, traveling, doing more charitable work and simply being grateful for the talents and opportunities she’s been given.
“I cried the day that I turned in my letter of resignation. I’ve been very blessed in my life to have walked into a school district that I love. The arts are very alive at Hicksville and I think they recognize the fact that art is important for all students to have,” she said. “I feel really good about leaving now because we have such a strong art department.”