Retiring art teacher helps Medinah students feel 'proud of what they create'
When Robin Russell's bosses asked her to look back on her career before her last day on the job, she could have noted the awards she received, the co-workers she mentored, all the stuff that built her resume.
But sitting down to write a retirement letter to the school district that hired her in 1979 was no easy task for Russell, a soft-spoken art teacher used to shining the spotlight on her students. Never mind that Russell has 37 years of memories to choose from.
But it was an email she received a couple of years ago, out of the blue, that Russell decided best captured her work.
A former student, who lost his parents and a younger sibling in a fire and later moved out of the district, sent Russell a note and a picture.
And there he was on the screen, now a grown adult with his own kids, standing in front of the very pieces of art work Russell explained on a field trip his grade school class took to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Even after all those years, he had taken the time to remind Russell of just how much a lasting impression teachers can make.
"Those are the teacher moments that you dream about, the fact that you've really had an impact on someone, and they let you know," Russell said.
The 57-year-old from Elgin is stepping down at the end of the school year in Medinah Elementary District 11, where she has taught in all three schools over her career.
Young artists often don't get the same recognition as young athletes, but Russell is known for connecting kids with opportunities to display their work beyond the walls of her classrooms.
"It was always part of my vision to make sure everyone feels proud of what they create," she said.
For as long as she's taught in the district, Russell has organized a student art show "down to the last detail," says Cara Steetz, a former student whose two sons have been taught by Russell.
Other former students returned for Russell's final show, held recently at Medinah Middle School. It's become a tradition, a "rite of passage" for kids who take pride in showing some 500 pieces to their families.
She's now busy selecting student artwork for judges -- representing businesses, the library, PTO and other groups -- to decide what images will fill a district calendar.
Russell can't abruptly step away from the job, from the district she calls a "small community." She needs a "transition" into retirement. So she plans to work as a substitute teacher and a sign language interpreter.
"This has been my life for 37 years," she says quietly. " ... I have so many examples of the impact the arts has made on the kids over the years. Those are special memories."
Steetz see the impact on her youngest son, Danny, who has a reading disorder. If words on the page frustrate him, art has been a therapy, a way to use his hands and express himself. Russell helped foster all that in an inclusive classroom that treats art as a means of communicating.
"Say it with your art," says a message that hangs in her classroom at Medinah Primary School.
As much as Russell teaches technique, she also wants her students to learn the "life skills," how to persevere through a project until "you're very satisfied with the result."
"You may not grow up to be an artist, but the things that you're going to learn in here are things that you'll use outside of the art classroom, too," Russell will tell her students.
But for the students who do dream of the arts as a career or a passion, Russell recommends them for summer art camps at Western Illinois University. Danny Steetz was one of them. Now 13, he takes pottery wheel classes at Harper College.
"He's my little artist," his Roselle mom gushes.
Russell hopes her successor carries the traditions she's built, the art show, the calendar. But to Steetz, there's simply no one who could replicate her "lifelong love" of teaching art.
"You can't replace Robin," she said.