Hilaski named regional teacher of the year

By Audrey Seilheimer

Jaime Hilaski, visual arts teacher at Schoolcraft Junior-Senior High School, has been chosen Regional Teacher of the Year for the 7th state educational region.

The region includes districts in seven southwestern Michigan counties: Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren as well as Kalamazoo County.

“Regional Teachers of the Year play key roles in their schools and communities and in our statewide effort to continue improving our schools,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “They offer insights about the needs of our 1.4 million school children and more than 90,000 educators. We appreciate their leadership and dedication to the teaching profession.”

Regional honorees were chosen following a competitive application process that began with their nominations for Michigan Teacher of the Year. Nominations were submitted by students, staff, and community members from across the state.

The regional Teachers of the Year comprise the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council (MTLAC, charged with bringing the teachers’ voices to a wider audience and providing input on proposed policies and initiatives.

South County News (SCN) interviewed Jamie, now in her 10th year in Schoolcraft schools, about the honor.

SCN: What inspires you as a teacher and what encourages you continue to thrive and expand in this career?

Hilaski: “As a teacher, I’m most inspired by my students. Their interests, their stories, their backgrounds drive my lessons and keep me excited about my career. I also find inspiration from other artists and teachers.

“I went into teaching because I wanted to give students the opportunity to utilize art as an outlet and a chance to expand their creativity. Creative thinking is a skill that everyone will utilize in the future and I want my students to really embrace this skill through open-ended projects.

“Art can be a chance to break away from their normal routine and find time to get lost in their creations. I also wanted to be a teacher to help students find their voice through art and build their confidence. They don’t have to be the best at drawing or painting, but I hope they leave my class with the confidence to take risks, fail, and adjust.

“I don’t like to do the same thing every year, so I think finding new lessons and gearing them towards the students in the classroom at the current time helps me to grow in my career. Putting art aside, I think the thing that has helped me truly enjoy my career and grow as a teacher is getting to know my students. This is by far my favorite part of being in the classroom and what has helped me most as a teacher.

“Building relationships is a fundamental part of teaching and then everything else falls into place.”

SCN: Are there any new projects or lessons you’re excited about?

Hilaski: “Every year I try to do something different with my students, whether that’s printmaking, silk screen, working with plaster or spray paint, or looking at new artists. I like to build lessons based on their interests. Some years it’s a specific medium the students are excited about, like clay this year.

“Other times it’s new artists I am introduced to and share with the students. One of my favorite lessons with my students is a portrait and printmaking lesson where we look at Kehinde Wiley’s work and used his artwork as inspiration for our pieces.

“One of my favorite projects isn’t new, but it’s one we do every year at the end of the year where my seniors get to design and paint a ceiling tile in my classroom or hallway. I love this project because it’s fun to see what they come up with but it’s also a piece they take the most pride in! They also get to be a part of Schoolcraft High School by leaving their mark.”

SCN: What does an award like this mean for you personally and for Schoolcraft Community Schools?

Hilaski: “Personally, being recognized as Regional Teacher of the Year is something that still hasn’t fully sunk in. I’m not one for the spotlight but having the opportunity to share about topics I’d like to see improved in education, and being an advocate for our students is what excites me about this role.

“An award like this means I will have opportunities to share my experiences in the classroom, have a voice for changes and improvements I think would benefit our kids and I’ll get to highlight some amazing things we have started at Schoolcraft Community Schools regarding our student culture. As Regional Teacher of the Year, I want to advocate for more mental health resources in schools and help students feel included in their school culture.”

SCN: What are your hopes for the future with your students and the art community you’ve fostered with youth in Schoolcraft?

Hilaski: “I am hopeful that students will continue to find joy in taking art. I hope that students will be able to utilize the art room as a space to find their voice, build confidence and relationships with their peers through collaboration, and bounce ideas off of each other. I want students to find the art room to be a space where they can just be themselves.

“My wish is that it will continue to inspire my students to try new things without fear of failure and they will continue to inspire me to grow as a teacher and individual.”

Jamie Hilaski is out on maternity leave, but plans to return to work after spending this quality time with her newborn twins. She is mother to now four boys and lives in Portage with her husband, Leon.

Hilaski as seen by her colleagues

By Audrey Seilheimer

Jaimi Hilaski’s co-workers described her impact at Schoolcraft over the years.

“I have taught with Jaime for many years,” said special education teacher Amy Green. “We have partnered together to do some project-based units combining our shared students who have learning challenges.

“Jaime has always found ways to encourage students to do their best work no matter what their abilities are. She finds ways to help students create amazing art and give them opportunities to shine!”

“Jaime has always provided a safe and calming space for her students to express themselves through art,” said Shannon McDonald, administrative professional at Schoolcraft High.

“I watched her encourage and inspire my own daughter, who had her as a teacher from 6-12th grade, helping her become the artist she is today. Her quiet, calming and fun personality draws in students and staff.

“She is always willing to help in any way she can to keep the culture and climate of our building positive.”

A map showing the regional boundries for Michigan Teacher of the Year and the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council.

What’s next?

Those chosen as Teacher of the Year in each of Michigan’s 10 regions will be interviewed by a panel of statewide education stakeholders. One of the 10 will be selected as the 2023-24 Michigan Teacher of the Year. That person has a seat at the State Board of Education as a non-voting member; attends several national conferences with fellow teachers of the year from other states and territories and will be Michigan’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year.

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