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Betsy Titus says that art, running, and music all contribute to her teaching style at North Haven Middle School where she has recently started working with kids in the Therapeutic Learning Services program. Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier

Betsy Titus says that art, running, and music all contribute to her teaching style at North Haven Middle School where she has recently started working with kids in the Therapeutic Learning Services program. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Betsy Titus: Teaching Everyone to be an Artist at NHMS

Published March 27, 2019

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Betsy Titus insists that anyone can be an artist. At North Haven Middle School (NHMS), she’s out to prove that not only can anyone make art, everyone should.

She’s been teaching art at the middle school for 20 years, but has only been involved with the school’s Therapeutic Learning Service (TLS) since 2017.

The TLS program focuses on social-emotional learning for students who need a little extra attention. Special education teachers and others throughout the school find ways to help improve the kids’ learning experience.

Betsy gave up one of her prep periods so that the kids could come down once a week to experiment with art therapy.

“Sometimes it’s less about the actual finished art projects and it’s more about some of the conversations we have and how when you’re unfolding and relaxing with art, there’s a physicality to it,” Betsy says. “You can find it very soothing, you can be expressive in ways that it’s hard to get out in another way.”

At first, the new addition to the program was an experiment in trying new things and seeing what worked.

“Trial and error or trial by fire, however you want to put it,” says Cory Sekelsy, one of the special education teachers who leads the TLS program.

Students work on a variety of projects from yarn art to gel printing plates—all projects that let the kids relax and express themselves in a reactive way.

“Usually it’s hands-on, usually it’s a lot of color,” Betsy says. “It’s a nice break for them to have that time.”

Part of the idea with the art therapy program is creating a safe space for the kids to unwind.

“Art is a time for them when they all come in here and kind of exhale,” Cory says. “Anything they’ve struggling with, anything they’ve been fighting throughout the day, when they come here…they get lost in whatever the project is.”

Sometimes, the teachers who work with the TLS program get as much from the program as the students do.

“The support personnel now participate as well,” Betsy says. “I think it’s a highlight of their day in that they get to experience something a little different than the rest of the day.”

According to Betsy, part of what makes the program successful is the mess.

“I always say you can’t trust an art teacher who has a really immaculate room,” Betsy says. “I think risk-taking often happens when you’re allowed to be a little messy, when you’re allowed to be messy.

After the experimentation of the first year, the program has become more streamlined.

“It’s even better this year,” Betsy says. “The kids really are getting a lot out of it.”

Betsy has given the kids assigned seating and tends to put out project materials before the students arrive, contributing to a more structured environment.

“She really is like superwoman. She handles everything,” Sekelsy says. “My population of kids is not an easy population of kids to work with…Our responsibility is to help them manage that through a variety of situations. Betsy stepped up.”

Betsy’s work with art goes far beyond the TLS program. She says that no matter your career, art can be valuable.

“A lot of people buy into the idea that only certain people can do art and really, I think, everyone has that capability,” Betsy says. “We just need the confidence and the support.”

Betsy didn’t always have that confidence. She always enjoyed art, but never thought she had the talent to go anywhere with it. Her bachelor’s degree in English took her to a job in retail that she hated.

She decided that she might as well like the thing she does for work so she got a second degree in art education.

“I realized maybe this isn’t a mysterious thing, maybe it’s just if you practice at something you do get better,” she says.

NHMS was her first teaching position. The art she makes on her own, mostly portraiture, often plays a role in the classroom.

“I let the kids see what I’m doing. I always have at least a sketchbook here so that when I’m sitting with the kids, I’ll work next to them,” Betsy says.

Teaching art for Betsy isn’t just about inspiring kids into their future careers. It’s about offering important life skills.

“I often tell the kids maybe you’ll go into the art field, maybe you won’t, but if you become an accountant and if you enjoy making little designs when you get home and it chills you out, that’s a great thing to know and it enhances your life,” Betsy says.

To nominate a Person of the Week, email Nathan Hughart at n.hughart@Zip06.com.

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