Surrounded by the tools of her trade, Rhonda Smith is at home in the Holyoke High School art classroom. That’s just one of the many reasons her upcoming retirement will be a bittersweet milestone. — The Holyoke Enterprise | Johnson Publications
Thirty-six years of teaching is a long stretch to reflect on in and of itself, but the origins of Rhonda Smith’s career as an art teacher can be traced back even further.
From seeing art as a release as a young girl to relishing the infrequent lessons offered in seventh and eighth grade, from imagining a career in graphic art to following a college adviser’s recommendation to consider art education, her path to where she is today was paved with countless seemingly inconsequential moments.
When the 2018-19 school year draws to a close, Smith will retire from a long, fulfilling career and enter a strange, new part of life. On Wednesday, May 22, a reception will be held in her honor at Holyoke High School from 4-5:30 p.m. It will be open to the public, and friends, staff and former students are encouraged to attend.
Holy Oak an unlikely home
Having grown up in Red Bud, Illinois, and attended Southern Illinois University, Smith dreamed of living in Colorado. She didn’t envision someplace like Holyoke, but now she knows it was meant to be.
Fresh out of college, she was looking for a teaching job. She turned down one in Missouri, holding out hope for an opportunity in Colorado. One day she had a message that a school in “Holy Oak, Colorado,” would like to schedule an interview. Without the benefit of Google, she flew out, not knowing what to expect.
Needless to say, the interview went well, and she accepted the K-8 art teacher position. Being responsible for teaching kindergarten P.E. and coaching junior high girls basketball, however, came as a bit of a surprise.
While she may have intended to teach in Holyoke for a few years and then move someplace where she could see the mountains, Smith ended up meeting Dave. He was a Holyoke native who worked in agriculture, and when they got married in 1986, she had a feeling she was committing to more than just marriage. Turns out she was right; over 30 years later, they still call Holyoke home. It’s where they raised their three children and poured themselves into the community.
From 1983-2004, Smith taught K-8 in the elementary school. After the junior high classes were moved to their current location, she moved between the two buildings to continue teaching K-8. In 2008, after the high school art teacher retired, the district decided that she could teach all of the art classes on her own. Fortunately that lasted just two years before the need for more manpower was addressed and a second art teacher was added back into the mix.
Since 2010, Smith has been teaching junior high and high school art, embracing the wildly different world of teaching teens. There was a definite learning curve, she said, but she’s come to appreciate the differences between teaching at the elementary and high school levels.
Being in the JR/SR high building has also given her opportunities to be more involved with the sporting events, concerts, homecomings, proms and countless other activities that happen there. The school is, after all, the hub of the community, she pointed out.
As any teacher in a district like Holyoke would likely agree, a career as a teacher is about much more than just the classes. Over the years, Smith coached junior high girls basketball and junior high and high school track. She also taught P.E., computer skills, reading, study skills and ICAP. She served as a class sponsor and a member of the National Honor Society faculty council, superintendent advisory committee, calendar committee and sunshine committee, just to name a few.
Retirement means more time for family
Family has always come first for Smith, and she’s balanced it with her job for decades. The decision to retire now comes not because she no longer enjoys teaching but because she wants to spend more time with her loved ones who are now spread out across several states.
Her oldest son, Landon, and his wife Whitney live in Gillette, Wyoming, with their newborn daughter, Holly. Landon works for Cloud Peak as a reclamation engineer at Antelope Mine, and Whitney is a nurse at Campbell County Memorial Hospital.
Smith’s daughter, Marissa, lives in Texas, where she is Johnson Controls’ business manager for Dallas Commercial of Dallas/Fort Worth. Her other son, Tanner, is an environmental scientist for Trihydro in Casper, Wyoming.
Her parents, Larry and MaryLou Mehring, still live in Red Bud, as do her sister and brother-in-law Susan and Perri Mehring. Another sister and brother-in-law, Theresa and Duane Everding, live in Thompson Station, Tennessee.
Though she’s considered backing out of retirement countless times, the thought of having more time to spend with all that family has helped her stick to her initial resolve. “I just totally love my job,” she said. “But I also totally love my family.”
Even so, giving up teaching is hard. To keep it in her life during retirement, Smith intends to do some substitute teaching. She also looks forward to spending time working on photo albums, painting and exercising.
Boredom in retirement, she said, is her biggest fear after being on a school schedule for essentially her entire life. She’ll also miss plenty of the things that being in the classroom added to her life. “My students drive my passion and love for teaching and fill me with energy, purpose, joy, laughter, inspiration,” she said.
The talent she sees in student artists is nothing short of amazing. As many school districts have found out, art is not a guarantee when money is tight. “Thank goodness that our community supports the arts,” Smith said. Her efforts to teach art despite constraints are commendable, too. At times she taught “art on a cart” when there weren’t enough classrooms in the elementary school for her to have her own space. In the junior high, she hauled buckets of water to classrooms without a sink so that students could still use paints. Though her personal preference is oil painting, she learned to appreciate water color since it’s a more affordable medium.
Making art available for students, she explained, helps them be well-rounded individuals that use both sides of their brains. Lessons on perspective, color and value help their artwork, but they also contribute to critical thinking and problem solving — skills valuable no matter what a student’s future may hold.
Art lends itself to tying in subjects such as history and math, she said, but the art skills are valuable on their own, too. Throwing on the pottery wheel, for example, isn’t something that just anyone can do. Schools that prioritize art give students the unique opportunity to try many different kinds of art. Without school art classes, the space, materials and instruction needed to do so would probably keep most kids from getting to experience it on their own.
Smith describes students taking the individual principles and exercises and combining them into “mini masterpieces” like it’s magic, and it’s no wonder she’s having a hard time saying goodbye to this chapter of her life.
“Teaching has been my life, and I will miss it dearly, but it’s time for family,” she concluded.