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Art Teacher Extraordinaire Retiring

June 14, 2022

Congratulations, Mrs. Bickford and thank you!

There is nothing more rewarding than being in a room full of students who are productive and teaching each other the skills you have shared with them. When all the art rooms are full of active learners at every level and they are teaching each other a broad range of skills, that feeling is intoxicating. I still marvel at it to this day and I cannot think of anything like it.

Debra Bickford, better known as Deb, is retiring this year after 37 years teaching visual art. Her career started at Wells Jr. High School (1 year), she moved on to Westbrook Middle School (2 years), and she is ending her career at Westbrook High School (34 years).

Her early experiences as a student have influenced her teaching and her life. She learned at a young age that she loved learning but didn’t care for school. When she arrived at Maine College of Art & Design – then called Maine College of Art (MECA), she fell in love with being in a space where people were hungry for learning about the same thing. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from MECA and went on to the University of Southern Maine where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Art Education. During her formal learning she was engaged in pre-service teaching at Waynflete School in Portland and student taught at Gorham Schools and Thornton Academy in Saco.

Deb and I had a conversation about her teaching career and what became clear is her passion comes through every single day in and out of the classroom. She has positively impacted thousands of students! She’s proud of the fact that she is honest with students, even when it is hard. And, she has NEVER taken a sick day! Many people have influenced Deb over the years. She’s had the opportunity to work with many positively astonishing educators who have shown her what excellence looks like and how to make it happen.

“It would be really inspiring to make some sort of visual map or “who” and “what” I learned from so many. Like a mind map with art education inspiration at the center and people fanning out all around the center.

I hope Deb takes the time to make this visual map and send a copy to everyone on the map. It would be an amazing representation exhibiting the numbers that influence teachers!

Deb has had many unforgettable moments during her 37 years in the classroom. Here are a few highlights:

  • The day a student in my adaptive art class shared how much her family loved her art work and said: “I never knew I could be an artist”.
  • The day both parents met a students guidance counselor at 7a.m. to have her drop another content area to start Pre-AP Studio Art. The student had made the request but was told she had already had an art class. That same student went on and received a $10,000 scholarship at class night and earn a BFA in Painting at MECA.
  • The many texts, visits and emails from students thanking me for preparing them to be successful in college level visual arts classes. Many have even reported being asked to lead critiques in class. This makes me so happy.

Deb presenting her colleague Matt Johnson the Maine Art Education Association (MAEA) Art Teacher of the Year award in April at the spring MAEA conference at CMCA, Rockland

During Deb’s career she has experienced many changes, both positive and negative. She is pleased to see “more students who desire a broader, deeper education in the arts and are willing and prepared to advocate for what they want even when there are roadblocks.” The negative aspect: “Over a decade of lower expectations in just about every aspect of what makes a strong, successful student has had a powerful impact on adequate progress. In general, students who used to be in the average range are finding the typical stress of high school level classes too much to cope with and organize for. What it means to “be a student” has, on average, deteriorated.

Deb’s program has evolved over the years. She’s grateful for the educators she has worked closely with who have influenced the evolution. Her classes are often mixed groups with AP, Art 1, and advanced students in one space. And, Art 3, 4, AP and Studio Art the same. Juniors and seniors enrolled in Studio Art have their own studio spaces within the art room. Her colleague Matt Johnson teaches in an adjoining classroom. Students migrate between Matt’s and Deb’s classes, moving where learning needs can be met. Deb and Matt’s collegial relationship promote a common studio space that encourages a cross pollination between students. Flexibility has been critical in leading to student success. The teachers move to meet the needs of the kids, not visa versa. A great example of ‘student-centered’ learning environment.

These are the four key ingredients that Deb believes are essential to any successful visual art education program:

  1. Know your content inside out, backward, forward and upside down and be willing to honor tradition whilst embracing the future.
  2. Understand that art skills and teaching skills are two very different things.
  3. Make sure that ‘what’ you are teaching and ‘how’ you are teaching it provides real world, valuable skills to every student no matter what level (skill level, experience in art) they are, or why, they are taking your class.
  4. Embrace Advocacy at every single turn. Never, ever pass up the opportunity to help people understand how and why arts education matters, no matter how exhausting it is.

Deb’s advocacy has been ongoing and her successes have served students well. I asked Deb to look into her crystal ball and offer advice to teachers.

Being an educator is not for the faint of heart. Wanting to help others learn and grow takes courage. When you do your preservice, think really hard about ‘why’ you want to pursue this. Teaching Art is not easy or fluffy or romantic. If you want to work hard and can commit to being a lifelong learner – go for it.”

You can view Deb’s pinterest teaching board which she has organized by elements, principles, concepts, media and process at https:www.pinterest.com/dabickford/_saved/. Her personal website which includes here amazing art is at http://www.dabickford.com/.

Deb’s future is bright with a retirement plans filling her days with activities she loves. She’ll be tending her multiple gardens. 60X40 vegetable, fruit trees, and perennials. She has willow gardens for traditional willow basket making. Deb and her husband are tearing up 20 year old floors in her home and replacing them with something easier to care for time in retirement. Deb will include time in her studio on a regular basis; printmaking and painting. She plans to pursue becoming a Golden Artist Educator and run a few painting workshops. Deb and her husband love visiting remote locations and plan to travel to the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton and make a return visit to Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada as well as several other beautiful highways.

I’m sure all your colleagues and the blog readers are joining me to wish you well on your retirement Deb!

If you know of other visual or performing arts teachers retiring this year please let me know by emailing meartsed@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. I love talking to you. I’m so lucky to know fabulous educators like yourself. Thanks for all the kind words. This will go in 1 of 2 memory books that I have filled over 37 years along with so many student notes. Thank you again. NOW I can become a MAEA lifetime member! Woot woot!


  2. It was such a pleasure putting your blog post together and honoring you for the work you’ve done during your career as an extraordinary educator! Thank you again Deb for sharing your story!
    ~Argy



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