WEE Teacher Filling Students, Herself with Hope

Catherine Holmes of West End Elementary School. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Staff Writer

Whether art imitates life, or it’s the other way around isn’t the important question in Catherine Holmes’ classroom.

At West End Elementary, she teaches students to recognize similarities between them: there are seldom clear correct answers, and what you learn from it is almost always unique to the individual beholder. 

To understand Holmes’ self-portrait — her gaze pensive as she casts it from deep shadow into the light — is to get a sense of her life before she started her teaching career three years ago.

This spring Holmes finished her master’s degree in art education at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. As a student, she helped professors research empathy in the classroom, presented at teaching conferences and contributed toward a textbook on art education. 

UNCP named her Student Teacher of the Year back in May, putting her in the running for the statewide honor. Earlier this month, the N.C. Association of Colleges for Teacher Education named her as one of the 10 finalists for state Student Teacher of the Year. 

But that’s just the latest chapter in her story. A favorite quotation from the memoir of novelist Pat Conroy guides her teaching: “great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life.”

As early as her childhood in Union County, Holmes was drawn to art as a way to express herself and work through her emotions. She even attended the prestigious Governor’s School of North Carolina program for visual art one summer. 

Life intervened though, and well-meaning advice from her mother steered her away from pursuing a teaching degree in college. 

It wasn’t until 2017 that Holmes returned to the University of North Carolina to finish her bachelor’s degree. By then she was a mother of two, and a breast cancer survivor.

She had previously worked as a teacher assistant at a couple of different charter schools before getting the job at West End, where she’d been involved as a parent. 

Students come to Holmes’ art class once, sometimes twice each week. She values her position over one of the few subjects that don’t involve high-stakes testing and periodic progress assessments.

Each class starts with discussion of a piece of art. But Holmes’ passion isn’t for teaching a rarified discipline of dead painters with unpronounceable names. Instead she offers art as a tool for discovery: helping students to understand themselves and others. 

Holmes guides students through the “see, think, wonder” routine of exploring elements of the artwork and theorizing why the artist made the choices they did. 

“It involves everybody. Nobody’s left out because they don’t know something about an artist or a work of art,” she said. 

“The same concept applies anywhere: there’s not a right or wrong. Somebody can see something one way, and somebody can see something the other way. We’re just respectful of each other.”

For the most part she wants her students to be in the present, immersed in what they’re doing with their hands. Manipulation of clay, the glide of a paintbrush and trail of brightly-colored pigment: the impressions artists leave on the world around them.

“I really try to let my room be a place for them to explore materials rather than having a set project, say we’re going to make flamingoes and they’re all going to look exactly the same,” she said.

Holmes incorporates literacy by sometimes using stories to set the theme for her students’ creations, or asking them to write an artist’s statement explaining their pieces. Unconstrained by the fear of being incorrect, even the youngest students offer up surprising observations and theories.

“Even the kindergarteners have such philosophical and really thoughtful ideas. It’s surprising just to see what their little minds are absorbing and feeling,” said Holmes.

“They’ve got so many feelings, they’re just still learning how to express it in different ways.”

Holmes’ graduation from her master’s program in education— the same day her son graduated from East Carolina University — now fully qualifies her as a licensed teacher in North Carolina. 

Her professor at UNCP, Naomi Lifschitz-Grant, nominated her for the school’s Student Teacher of the Year Award.

“In the classroom, Catherine has shown enormous promise and has an extraordinary ability to relate to all kinds of students and accommodate many different learning styles,” Lifschitz-Grant wrote in a release.

“She always gives opportunities for her students to explore their world and make art that is meaningful and exciting to them.”

NCACTE will announce its Student Teacher of the Year during its Fall Forum in late September.

“It’s an honor, and it’s nice to be recognized, I think, after being a full-time mom, and working full-time, and being a student. That was a lot,” Holmes said.

“But I think all that hard work has paid off. And I think it’s been good for my daughter to see that too.”

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurphy@thepilot.com.