As soon as she got her hands on clay as a teenager, Batavia High School art teacher Dawn Zalkus knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. There was something about the texture of the clay and the way she was able to manipulate it to make something beautiful that inspired her creativity. Zalkus is now living her dream, teaching Advanced Placement Studio Art, 3-D Art and Art Fundamentals courses, as well as sponsoring several arts organization’s events, at the school where she has worked since 2007.
This summer, Zalkus was announced as the winner of the 2018 Art Educator of the Year Award, which was given out by the Illinois Art Education Association. Zalkus was nominated by an Oswego High School art teacher, whom she met through various student art shows. Zalkus was also recently notified that she is nominated for the National Secondary Art Educator of the Year award, and will learn in early 2019 if she was selected as the recipient.
“It was shocking, exciting and humbling,” she says about winning the award. “I feel like our entire art program was being celebrated, not just me. We’ve all worked together on the curriculum and programs.”
Teaching at Batavia has been a perfect fit for Zalkus, who says that the school, and the Tri-Cities community in general, are very supportive of the arts and student artists, which allows her to expand the program and include conceptual art projects in the curriculum.
“Students can use a variety of materials based on a theme, so each of them has a unique project. It’s very individualized-learning. Their projects are not ‘cookie-cutter,’” she says. “I’m able to tie themes to art projects, so they have a purpose behind them. The art program also gives these students a sense of belonging and a place where they can feel comfortable to show pride in what they do.”
Zalkus has been the faculty sponsor of “Rock the Runway,” a wearable art fashion show, for the past ten years. She also founded the Batavia High School chapter of the National Art Honor Society and sponsors the annual “Empty Bowls” fundraiser, where money raised from the sales of student-made ceramic bowls is donated to the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry.
While getting recognized for her work is appreciated, Zalkus says that the most important part of her job is fostering a love of art in her students and helping them realize the potential each of them has. She hopes to build a strong art community within the school so students feel like they have a “home.”
“I love working with the students and giving them a sense of community through art,” she explains. “I love growing and becoming a better teacher. I love being inspired by new work, and that has helped me grow as a teacher and as an artist.”
One student who was inspired by Zalkus is Isabel Walker, who graduated from Batavia in 2018 and now attends art school in Michigan. Isabel’s mother, Beth Walker, says Zalkus encouraged her daughter to become involved with “Rock the Runway,” where she became a leader.
“Dawn gave my daughter a home [in school] and her confidence grew,” she explains. “Dawn was always pushing the program forward, challenging kids to go outside their comfort zones and take artistic risks.”
JoAnne Smith, Batavia High School principal, says that Zalkus goes above and beyond, not only in the classroom, but with her tireless dedication to her students’ success. Smith explains that Zalkus supports the students’ passion for art and makes a personal connection with them.
“She focuses on individualized projects so the students can determine what statement they want to make with their art,” Smith says. “Dawn and the entire art department has elevated the offerings to our students and has given them opportunities to shine in different ways. I’m very proud of her because she’s poured her heart and soul into this program.”
Zalkus, who lives in St. Charles with her husband Jeremy, grew up in the south suburbs and earned her bachelors and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois. When she’s not busy with her students, Zalkus enjoys boating and creating her own art, including pieces that have been shown at Water Street Studios.
She also painted the “Always Learning, Always Growing Dog” for Batavia’s Bulldogs Unleashed initiative.
“Art connects us to who we are as humans. Most people have a fundamental need to create,” she explains. “Art tells the story of who we are, exposes people to new ideas and can even make people uncomfortable. But artists often have their fingers on the pulse of our culture. There’s such a rich community for the arts here, and I’m happy I can give students joy and help them discover a love of art.”