When Terry Lee retired last week, she could look back on 30 years in the classroom and the impression she’d made on thousands of students as an art teacher. To see the mark she made on Woodington Middle School – that is, on the building where she spent 20 of those 30 years – she only had to look up.
Beginning in 2014, Lee championed and supervised a project in which select groups of artistic eighth graders decorated ceiling tiles in high traffic areas of the school, such as the main building and the lobby that leads visitors to the gymnasium. This year, weeks before she retired, Lee and her students completed their most impressive work – a 15-tile piece in that lobby that features Woodington’s signature Raider and welcomes visitors.
“We started with single titles, but then I started thinking it would have more impact if we put more tiles together,” Lee said last week, on her last day on the job. “My later years majoring in art education at East Carolina, I started working on a larger scale with my works of art; so I started having students put tiles together.
“We started with four titles together to let that be one whole work of art. This last project we came up with this big idea of doing a huge one.”
All the tile works are painted in acrylics. The four-tile installations usually celebrate subject areas like music or social studies. Principal Patrick Phillippe – who originally brought the idea of painting the tiles to Lee, she said – suggested the larger welcome-to-Woodington work. Students came up with the concept, though.
“That was their idea and I helped them achieve what Mr. Phillippe wanted, something that would welcome people as they came in the lobby, especially during basketball season,” Lee said.
Because it’s done in sections, a big piece like the Raider welcome was first plotted out digitally, another advantage of the technology that Lee rated as a major change in her teaching career. “Technology has opened up a lot of doors for the possibility of creating art,” she said, “and also bringing in more history, making teaching art history at lot easier.”
But middle-school students change? Not so much. And not a problem, said Lee, who switched to teaching after securing a degree in architectural drafting and working for a time in the private sector.
“I wanted to work with young people,” she said. “I enjoy working with teenagers and not just being an art teacher and teaching them art, but also being there hopefully as someone who helps students grow to their best potential,” she said.
The ceiling tile project itself has encouraged and rewarded a sense of responsibility among teenagers. “I went with eighth graders because they are more mature,” Lee said, “and that gave the sixth and seventh graders something to look forward to, doing that activity.
“I would select certain students I knew had the talent and that I knew also had the ability to be responsible, that could take charge without me standing over them. They had to be able to work independently among their group,” she said.
Callie Eason waited her turn, becoming part of the ceiling tile project this past year as an eighth grader. “I was both aware of it and looking forward to it,” said Eason, who painted several tiles. “I learned how to use different techniques using paints.”
Like her artistically inclined classmates, she left a little of herself at Woodington, a fact Lee wants her painters to remember.
“I tell them they ought to be proud of what they’ve done because that’s something that’s going to be around for a long time for people to see,” she said. “They can come back and maybe show their children and maybe their grandchildren.”
Of course, Terry Lee left a lot of herself at Woodington, creating a legacy as a teacher that she’s not quite ready to put on the shelf. Among her retirement plans: volunteering in the class her daughter teaches at Southwood Elementary School.
“I’m glad I stayed in the classroom,” Lee said. “I liked being in the classroom, to be directly involved with students. Have I impacted every student the way I wish I had? Not necessarily. But there are a few I know I have hopefully made a difference in their life, doing something that I love. And that’s art.”