Art teacher wins Educator of the Year

Art history teacher Melinda Darrow always knew she wanted to be a teacher. To her, school was a magical thing that gives us the chance to learn and grow as people. She’s admired by the Westlake community for everything she does for students, both inside and outside of Westlake, and because of this was recognized at the Westies on Friday, Feb 16, 2018.

Every year, the Westlake Chamber of Commerce holds the Westies — awards that recognize people and businesses who have made significant contributions to community service in the past year. People in the Westlake area can nominate people and businesses for the Westies, and then anyone can vote on the nominees. This year, art history teacher Melinda Darrow won the award for Educator of the Year.

Although she’s only been teaching at Westlake for 28 years, Darrow’s teaching career began long before that.

“I began teaching when I was three,” Darrow said. “I came home from preschool and immediately started teaching all my friends and stuffed animals. I was obsessed as a child. I would make lesson plan books and reports cards — I even made absent notes and changed the handwriting for each parent. I’d put pockets in the backs of all my library books to make my own little library, I had a chalkboard in my room. When I was about 30 and had been teaching for about eight years, I was feeling burned out from the grading, and my mother said, ‘Well no wonder, you’ve been teaching for 27 years.’”

Before becoming the art history teacher, Darrow taught various levels of English, teaching many students, including Drew Brees. When Westlake first offered art history, she eagerly took the job of teaching it since it was her undergraduate degree.

“[Art history] was kind of my first love, as far as subject area,” Darrow said. “That first year we had six students, they all passed the AP, and now we have about 300 students, and we have a second teacher, Ms. Moira Longino. There’s three levels in art history — AP, Art historical methods, which I modeled on after a graduate course at NYU, and then the third year is a research class where the students write an 80-page thesis on any topic of their choosing. This year, Ms. [Carolyne] Foote and I took 23 of those kids (we have 30) to Washington DC to study at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Museum Libraries. Normally they don’t allow people under 18 to study at the Library of Congress. You have to get a special readers’ card to get in and they bring you each book one at a time, but when Ms. Foote called them and told them how serious these kids are, they said, ‘Come on.’ That was a fabulous experience.”

Darrow is hardly just the art history teacher, though. She has begun many projects to help both Westlake High School and the surrounding areas.

“This past summer, I was able to teach in India for a month at a private school and a public school and teach teachers,” she said. “I helped establish the GEO, Girls Education Organization, Club to empower girls in Africa. I’m working with Muslim students in Westlake now who have started a tutoring program for the girls at the Muslim private school on Southwest Parkway. One of the outgrowths of the curation show that our art historical methods students did in the gallery is an international empowerment organization for Muslim women called Hijab. Several students and I are working on extending these initiatives to other schools in Eanes, Austin and beyond. I feel like teaching is a way, especially here, to find our own passions and our own ‘best’ in each person, but then also to spread it into the world.”

Throughout her entire career at Westlake, Darrow says she has “fewer than one handful of days that have been bad in [her] entire career,” and teaching is much more than just a job.

“I think school is magical,” Darrow said. “Every day there’s a chance to learn something new. We have such inquisitive, engaged, kind, ambitious and fabulous students, and learning is such a joy with them. Even the students who are struggling or feeling disengaged sometimes, that’s the art of relating to them as a teacher to try to pull out their best, to challenge them, to inspire them and to follow them through the years. There’s so much to be excited and enlightened about, and school shows us how we can find our own passions and figure out our way in the world. It’s such a privilege to go through that with the students.”

While most students may just see school as boring work and grades, Darrow views it entirely differently.

“Every time I hear an adult say something like, ‘Shakespeare is boring’ or ‘I’m no good at writing’ or ‘I just don’t get modern art; my 5-year-old kid could do that,’ I feel a stab in my heart because there’s so much magic in education,” Darrow said. “There’s so much more to learn and be excited about. School can show us how all of us, as humans, have far more similarities than we have differences. We all inhabit this planet together and must learn how to make our way. Everyone wants the same thing, such as love, security, success and a sense of purpose, and school is where we can discover our passions and figure out how we can express them in our world and in our lives.”