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Christina Chicas ’12

Posted in: Spotlights

  • Program (Degree and Major): MAT in Art Education
  • Graduation Date/: May 2012

In addition to being our Alumni Spotlight for November, Christina was named Teacher of the Year at Orchard Elementary School in Ridgewood, NJ. As such, she exemplifies the “Tradition of Excellence” of Ridgewood Public Schools. As the art teacher at Orchard, Mrs. Chicas runs an efficient and effective classroom, beginning each lesson with a clear, concise explanation of the project or task for the day. Once that is done, her students immediately get started, creating and expressing themselves through their artwork. By granting students independence and responsibility, they take ownership of their projects, learn to cooperate with their classmates and feel proud of what they accomplish. As a leader in the district’s STEAM initiative, Mrs. Chicas demonstrated her vision and excitement for incorporating these concepts at the elementary level and expanding the curriculum. She is also a tech wonder and finds ways to incorporate technology to enhance the learning experience of all students. Orchard is very proud to call Mrs. Chicas, Teacher of the Year!

Why did you choose this field of study? Why did you choose the program at Montclair State University?

I had an amazing school experience as a kid. I loved going to school because my own teachers were these fun, enthusiastic people who offered what felt like unique ways to experience the world. When I got older and it came time to start thinking about careers, the choice seemed obvious to me.

I grew up in northern New Jersey, so Montclair’s reputation for teacher education was no secret to me when I was seeking out Art Education graduate programs. I had heard great things about Montclair in general, and I appreciated that Montclair requires a variety of studio art classes in anticipation of being able to teach K-12 students a little bit of everything. It ended up paying off because my coursework at Montclair has informed my teaching in so many ways. The knowledgeable professors and staff members at Montclair helped to instill in me a confidence in my own knowledge base, as well as a desire to learn more.

What were the best parts of your program?

So many of Montclair’s professors were important to my experience in the teacher preparation program. Dr. Dorothy Heard’s Foundations courses were interesting and demanded excellence, Lynne Buschmann and Stacy Morrison taught studio courses that had me exploring familiar mediums in new ways, and Fernando Naiditch’s personality and passion for diverse learners still helps me create content responsive to the needs of my students. I’m so thankful that I was able to learn from them.

What was your favorite class or experience in the program, and why was that so important to you?

Despite all of the incredible studio art and art ed. classes I had the opportunity to take, the student teaching placements I got to fill were some of my favorite parts of my time at Montclair. Like many teachers-in-training before me, I was almost comically unaware of everything that would be required of a teacher in the classroom in the practical sense. My first experiences in front of students felt like learning how to walk, and those experiences were both humbling and fascinating. Because art teachers are certified to teach K-12, I was able to participate in two placements at different grade-levels. I was paired with incredible mentors in two Montclair schools who gave me my first chances to dig into the actual mechanics of a working classroom.

Arin Leard at Mt. Hebron Middle School, now Buzz Aldrin Middle School, and Fran Legman at Northeast Elementary School gave me more responsibility than I thought I could handle, but less than I’d need to manage in my own classroom. They challenged and supported me, and I’m a better teacher having spent time in each of their classrooms.

Now that you are working in your field, how did your program prepare you for this position?

The studio art classes required of Art. Ed. grad students have armed me with a breadth of experiences that I now rely on to engage my students in a wide variety of activities throughout the school year. I’m exploring techniques and materials with my students that I didn’t have access to until much later in my educational career, which I’m finding helps spark an interest in art-making methods and materials early.
My fieldwork and student teaching experiences have been invaluable to my success in the classroom. The high standards of the teacher preparation program, as well as of my cooperating teachers, helped me to feel prepared for both interviews and for the classroom. The opportunities these teachers gave me to succeed (and fail!) with their classes were so important because until that point, so much was theoretical. I understood how to craft a lesson plan, but I didn’t know what to do when a Kindergartener decides to draw on the face of their table-mate with Sharpie. You’re forced to get into the habit of the kind of constant split-second decision making that’s essential to good teaching, and you don’t know how important that is until you have a class of little people in front of you.

Please tell us about what you are currently doing and what your future plans are.

I’m currently working in Ridgewood, at Orchard Elementary School as the Art Specialist. I typically teach art to K-5 students at Orchard and Willard, but, you know… Covid. This year, I’m teaching hybrid students remotely from my classroom, which is really strange. In the spring when isolation began, it felt like a lot of the reasons I love teaching were taken away – student interaction, a group studio atmosphere, and close community weren’t possible in the way I knew them, and it took a long time to feel like I had my feet under me. I’m also continuing my education and taking graduate-level coursework online through the Art of Education University.

In the last year, I got married to my awesome husband Dave, and we bought our first home. I’ve been looking forward to finishing re-landscaping our yard, and creating my own studio space! I’ve never had a whole room for my art, and I can’t wait to create that for myself.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your program, the College of Education & Human Services, or Montclair State University that we haven’t asked about?

Make sure you’re nice to everyone in the Center of Pedagogy! I used to work in that office, and I made some great friends and great memories.