Teri McCombe: Inspiring artists from K to 12
Teri McCombe’s career at the Block Island School began in 1983 when she took a parttime post to teach in a start-up art program for seventh and eighth graders.
Over the years, the program expanded to accommodate elementary students and began to offer elective choices for high school students. By 1994, McCombe had developed the curricula for 12 levels of art instruction and was a full-time teacher for every grade.
“Art offers an education of the mind, body and spirit, and for some, art might be the hook to pull them into science, social studies and English,” she says. Working collaboratively with her colleagues in many disciplines, McCombe fuses art projects to the many units of academic study students engage in.
McCombe studied at American University in Washington, D.C. when the Watergate scandal was in the air (this was around 1974), which McCombe says was “a very interesting place to be at the time.” She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree, as well as a bachelor of science degree in art education.
Retiring at the end of the 2013 school year from work she clearly loves, McCombe says it helps that Barby Michel is stepping down at the same time. Noting she’s always felt camaraderie with her colleague and friend, McCombe finds it comforting to be leaving together.
McCombe’s first art room was housed in what is now a basement corridor, a space originally “carved out by John Warfel for a drafting room.” She notes Warfel, who was then a shop teacher, “was kind enough to share the cramped quarters next to his burgeoning program.” She credits him with making tables “sturdier than any the school could have purchased by catalogue and … that are still in use” in her classroom today.
With the most recent renovation of the school coming together, in 2006, she found herself in a “a gorgeous facility with two sinks, including one handicap sink.” It provided “everything a full-fledged art program should have,” McCombe explains.
Crediting the Block Island Arts and Crafts Guild with creating the display walls, equipment and for having been generous patrons “of the arts program over the years,” McCombe, who is a Guild member herself, said she is very grateful for their support.
Art through nature and design
Initially experienced in working with middle and high school students, McCombe also studied classroom and behavior management for elementary classes. She did considerable research in early childhood education, following programs developed by Carnegie Mellon University, which focused on teaching art through nature and design and distinguishing between organic and non-organic forms.
She believes in basing her program on “where the children are, finding out what they need academically.” Without preconceptions of what students were capable of, McCombe said she “wanted them to come into the art room for a fresh start.”
Island residents are familiar with the work of her students, which frequently decorates the walls of the Washington Trust bank branch on Ocean Avenue. In a collaborative project with their social studies unit on Egypt, her students created life-sized mummies.
It’s not about perfection on a page
McCombe finds the state of art education in the country distressing. She notes it “has moved toward making of products; school systems are looking for products and outcomes.” To her, art and creativity are about process, about engaging the individual personally and emotionally.
She is less concerned with whether her students reproduce a likeness in a photo than she is about their ability to express some aspects of themselves. “It’s not about perfection on a page,” she points out. It’s about expression. Interestingly, she adds while there is such an explosion of technology available to youngsters, she finds them still needing to create.
Noting she has had a plan for “every 47-minute period seven times a day for thirty years,” she admits relief in letting that routine go. However, she is gratified that she is able to leave at a time when there is a “proper art facility for the kids to create in.” What she doesn’t mention is that she also leaves a very sophisticated art program encompassing kindergarten to twelfth grade classes.
As to herself, she says, “I still have a drive to create, just like my kids.” So it is that she looks forward to going home to her own studio, having more time for her own art, staying on the island and occasionally travelling.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say after 30 years, ‘I’m not leaving for any other reason than because I’d like a new adventure,’” she said.