Jennifer Fisher in her classroom

Jennifer Fisher teaches undergraduate and graduate art education courses at UMSL and directs a program that combines a BFA with a Missouri teaching certificate in art. While she works to make sure her students have a firm grasp of basic pedagogy, she also tries to instill the importance of empathy in the classroom. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jennifer Fisher opened the envelope from the Missouri Art Education Association last month and felt a rush of excitement.

According to the letter, she had won MAEA Higher Education Art Educator of the Year. At least, she thought she had.

“One of my friends who’s on the executive council for MAEA texted me and said, ‘Hey, give me a call in like 10 minutes. We’re in the middle of a council meeting and some stuff has changed,’” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to say you didn’t really win.’”

Fisher, an assistant teaching professor of art education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was still a winner, though.

Despite the confusion, she had actually won MAEA Art Educator of the Year, which is the overall award for art educators in the state.

Melanie Robinson, an art teacher at Cedar Springs Elementary, nominated Fisher, citing the quality of the student teachers UMSL has placed in the Northwest R-1 School District over the years.

For an educator so esteemed in her field, Fisher came to art late. She didn’t study it seriously until she entered college.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I always envisioned myself teaching English or language arts,” Fisher said. “I was an undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, and I was enrolled as an English education major. I ended up taking a ceramics class because I needed a fine arts elective.”

The class sparked Fisher’s interest, but she was uncertain about making the jump to art education. Looking for guidance, she called her elementary school art teacher who encouraged her. Her parents, who are educators, were also supportive even though they were surprised by the change of heart.

“I called my parents and said, ‘Hey, I think I’m switching to art education,’” Fisher said. “They both were like, ‘OK, where’s this coming from?’ I had been heavily involved in music through high school and in middle school, and I hadn’t really gotten to take a lot of art classes. They were like, ‘Well, Jenn, if you think you can do it, then you can do it.’”

Fisher added just one more art class to her schedule, with the plan that it wouldn’t put her too far behind if it didn’t work out. However, she thrived with the help of many supportive professors and classmates.

After graduating from SEMO, Fisher furthered her education with a master’s in special education, specializing in gifted education, from the University of Missouri–Columbia and a PhD in teaching and learning processes from UMSL.

The completion of her doctorate in 2016 happened to coincide with the retirement of her mentors at UMSL, E. Louis Lankford and Karen Cummings. They suggested she apply for the newly open position in the Department of Art & Design.

Now, Fisher teaches undergraduate and graduate art education courses and directs a program that combines a BFA with a Missouri teaching certificate in art.

While she works to make sure her students have a firm grasp of basic pedagogy, she also tries to instill the importance of empathy in the classroom. It’s a way to build trust with students, which makes instruction much easier.

“I’m the last person that they have education classes from before they go out into the field to do it on their own,” Fisher said. “My goal is always to help them understand the content of what you teach is obviously very important. You need to be a content specialist, but at the end of the day, you’re teaching human beings. I always try to model empathy for them and understanding that your students are coming to you from a lot of different perspectives and from a lot of different life experiences that you don’t know about.”

Fisher noted that’s been particularly important for her to apply in her own classes because UMSL has many non-traditional students who have children, take care of family members or work full time. It challenged her to think about her privileges and meet her students where they’re at.

“But that’s what I love,” she said. “UMSL students don’t come to play. They come to work hard, learn and get their degree and make something of themselves. I really like that dynamic.”

The other lesson Fisher tries to impart is the importance of art for many of the kids that her students will teach. It often serves as a refuge – an important break from the stress of other classes.

“Sometimes in art we will have kids who struggle in every other class during the day,” Fisher said. “The rest of the school is just hell for them. They come to the art classroom, and it’s the first time that they can breathe. It’s the first time where it’s not black or white, right or wrong. They can express themselves. They can get creative, and they can be a little goofy.”

The recognition from MAEA is exciting, but Fisher insists she’s only doing what she was meant to.

“Before anything else, I consider myself a teacher,” she said. “Before research, before creative work, before all that, at my core, I really feel like teaching has been my passion for as long as I can remember.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe