Visitors walking into Kelli Gehrke’s Sussex Tech High School classroom are instantly struck by the amount of student work on display – posters, cereal boxes, illustrations, book covers and much more.
That’s just the way the veteran digital publishing and print design teacher works, with a single-minded focus on supporting her students and bringing out their talents and skills.
As the Sussex Technical School District teacher of the year, her platform is about using art in a therapeutic fashion to help students express themselves, and cope with stress and anxiety – an especially important issue while students deal with COVID-19 pressures.
“I plan lessons that teach students graphic design as well as teach me about the students,” said Gehrke, in her eighth year of teaching. “For instance, if I’m teaching them how to design a magazine cover, they need to answer questions about themselves and put themselves on the cover. It seems like a simple premise, but although some of them won’t express themselves through words, they will do that by the art they choose for the cover.”
The process takes a long-term commitment to student development, she said. “It sometimes takes multiple projects before some students open up, but I usually get a deep understanding of each student as an individual after multiple projects,” Gehrke said. “Sometimes it’s easier to express your feelings by drawing them. And the process of creating art in general also helps with overall anxiety and stress.”
Like all teachers, Gehrke has had to be creative with remote instruction. She spent her summer working on technology logistics and making sure her students had computers able to run specialized industry-standard design software. During live video sessions this fall, she has adapted her teaching to the virtual environment.
“I flip my screen as I show the students new design tools, and give them time to mimic the process. Then they flip their screens to show me their designs and that they understood the lesson,” Gehrke said. “It takes a lot more time than if we were in our traditional setting, but they are still learning and growing as designers every day.”
Under Sussex Tech’s modified remote learning plan which allows small groups of students on campus two days a week for voluntary instruction or demonstrations, Gehrke recently had a few seniors come to work hands-on in her computer and design lab. “I’m so excited to see them,” she said.
Gehrke holds a master’s degree in career and technical education from Wilmington University and a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts from Robert Morris College.