Alumna Abby Birhanu gives students a voice through art education

by | Jun 5, 2023

Birhanu serves as a visual and fiber art teacher at Wydown Middle School and recently won MAEA 2022 Middle/Junior High School Art Educator of the Year.
Abby Birhanu, Black woman in black shirt and colorful scarf, leans on table as a student, young girl in puffer coat works on an art project

Abby Birhanu (at right), an UMSL art education alumna, looks on as one of her students at Wydown Middle School works on a project. Birhanu has been recognized as one of the St. Louis region’s top educators over the course of her career, winning St. Charles High School Teacher of the Year in 2010 and, most recently, Missouri Art Education Association 2022 Middle/Junior High School Art Educator of the Year. (Photo courtesy of the School District of Clayton)

When Abby Birhanu came to the United States from Ethiopia at the age of 9, she couldn’t speak English – but she could draw.

It was through art that she found connection in her new home.

“I drew the Little Mermaid,” she recalled, laughing. “I drew the Ninja Turtles and the X-Men; they were always my favorite topics to draw. Then people would look at them and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and talk to me. I didn’t have any friends, so it was a way that I made friends. I connected to art through comic books. I loved the Marvel universe way before everybody loved the Marvel universe.”

Making friends was an unexpected perk of her early artistic endeavors, but Birhanu explained she was just expressing her urge to create.

“I just found whatever I could around me and made things,” she said of her childhood. “I even made my own pigment from bricks, things like that. I liked seeing colors do things. I liked building structures with wheels that could move that are mechanical. That’s what I did for play often. My mom would say that I was in a corner somewhere always making something.”

Since graduating with her BFA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2006, Birhanu has worked to inspire new generations of young artists as an educator in the City of St. Charles School District and the School District of Clayton. She’s been recognized as one of the St. Louis region’s top educators over the course of her career, winning St. Charles High School Teacher of the Year in 2010 and participating in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange in the United Kingdom during the 2011-12 school year.

Most recently, the Missouri Art Education Association named Birhanu the 2022 Middle/Junior High School Art Educator of the Year.

“It’s humbling,” she said. “I definitely don’t feel like I deserve it. I do what I do, and I’m the type of art teacher who’s always in awe of what other people do. ‘Oh, man, I wish I had that idea.’”

Jennifer Fisher, an assistant teaching professor and the coordinator of the art education program at UMSL, celebrated the honor despite Birhanu’s humility.

“I met Abby several years ago through our mutual mentors, Dr. Louis Lankford and Dr. Karen Cummings,” Fisher said. “She was instrumental in the formation of an EDI group within our state group, the Missouri Art Education Association. Since that time, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to become both her colleague and her friend. Abby represents not only the best of what UMSL art education has to offer, but indeed, the best of what our nation has to offer to the field of art education globally. She is dedicated, talented, giving and real. I couldn’t be more proud to know Abby.”

As a student in St. Charles, Birhanu wasn’t sure that she wanted to pursue art or education as a career. At UMSL, she decided to major in graphic design and minor in art. It wasn’t long before Birhanu’s academic advisor informed her that she had completed all the coursework necessary for her minor.

“I could not imagine a world where I was not taking an art class or being around artists, having conversations around art,” Birhanu said. “Right around that time, she said, ‘Are you sure that you don’t want to go into art because you seem to really love it?’”

Birhanu was torn, though.

In her heart, she was an artist. But she worried about career stability in a creative field. She also had to contend with the expectations of an immigrant family who made many sacrifices for a better life in the United States.

“I had to fight all these outside forces and internal forces, and then I decided it’s just what I have to do,” she said.

A chance encounter at the restaurant where Birhanu was waiting tables provided the final push she needed to pursue a career in art. A customer struck up a conversation with Birhanu, asking what she was studying in college. She explained that she was majoring in graphic design even though she had reservations about being stuck behind a computer and had also considered psychology.

Birhanu kept speaking with the woman throughout the meal, and when she found out Birhanu enjoyed mentoring and working with youth, she suggested art education. Suddenly, a path forward emerged.

“I just never thought about it; I’ll be honest,” Birhanu said. “Yes, I had art teachers but never thought they went to school to do this and this is a career. So, I talked to somebody at UMSL and just got going and signed up. It felt like a fit from the get-go. Up to that point, I was in turmoil. I was doing graphic design. I was doing psychology. I tried an art minor. But right at that point, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ I’ve never had a doubt since the first day I joined this field honestly that this is what I’m meant to do.”

Birhanu began teaching visual art courses at the Center of Creative Arts while working toward her degree, and after graduating, she returned to the school district she had attended to serve as an art educator at St. Charles High School.

At first, there were challenges. Birhanu said she lacked strong classroom management skills during her first year teaching. However, she was undeterred, driven to connect with all of her students on a personal level. Her hard work over the succeeding years was noticed, and in 2010, the district named her St. Charles High School Teacher of the Year.

Birhanu’s most transformative experience as a young teacher came the next school year when she participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange at Charters School in Sunningdale, England.

“They teach very differently than we do, and I brought a lot of that back with me because there were a lot of great things that I saw there in terms of material use, the way they engage students in process over product that I still use today,” she said. “I came back, and it completely changed how I taught.”

After returning to the U.S., Birhanu continued teaching at St. Charles High School until 2021 when she decided to take a job at Wydown Middle School as a seventh and eighth grade visual and fiber art teacher. It was a difficult but necessary decision.

“I loved it, loved every bit of working there, loved my kids there,” she said. “I stayed for them for a very long time, and then got a job in Clayton because I just needed to move on. With all the legislation coming out of Missouri targeting teachers for conversations around diversity, I felt like a lot of my content was about growing inclusive thinkers, people who are empathetic, social emotional learning. Since everything I believe in is rooted in that, I just couldn’t see myself long-term in that district because I felt they would succumb rather than fight back.”

Those same principles also led Birhanu to join the Anti-Racist Art Teachers collective and co-author the book, “Anti-Racist Art Activities for Kids.” The book includes numerous activities centered on activism, community culture, empathy, identity and justice and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

The voice art provides people across the world and its impact on society are major elements of her curriculum, as well. Students learn about the connections between artists’ lived experiences and their artwork through the “See, Think, Wonder” method. They also learn about themselves and what they value.

“I think, first of all, every subject should give kids a means to express not just regurgitate information or show what they learned but also give them space to express their ideas, opinions about the world, delve into those things that interest them,” Birhanu said. “Art is that if it’s done the right way. It does open up that space for self-reflection, what you think about the world and what matters to you out there. What do you deeply care about? How do you want to live your life? Art gives us a space to really think about the big things that matter in our lives.”

Those insights are possible because mentorship and relationship building are the foundations of Birhanu’s work in the classroom. She strives to hold her students accountable for their behavior and work ethic and push them to be their best selves.

“I’m in this space with them every day, and I know their stories and I see what makes them laugh, what makes them cry,” Birhanu said. “I want it to be a space where they can break down if they need to or be absolutely themselves as long as they’re being respectful and learning how to be within a community and take care of each other.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe