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The Art of Winning

Whether it’s in Tulsa or around the world, Martha Highland’s goal for teaching art is the same — to make learning engaging, fun, and not feel like it’s learning at all.

Lindsay Morris
Marc Rains
February 28, 2019

There are some teachers who are just passing time and working to get a paycheck. But then there are the teachers who realize teaching is their calling — their purpose — and they do everything in their power to inspire the children in their classroom.

One of those truly remarkable teachers is Martha Highland, art teacher at Bixby Central Elementary.

When she’s not teaching 700 first – through third-graders, she’s probably preparing to teach them. Highland takes her job seriously because she views art as a way for her young students to express what they are thinking and feeling.

“Art has the power to bring people together and teach them that they’re not alone,” Highland says.

Art can also bring healing, Highland says, and she tries to teach this to her students. During her time teaching at Tulsa-area schools, her students have used art to help cancer patients, nurses and even victims of the earthquake in Nepal. One of her favorite parts of her job is teaching children that they can make a difference.

Highland gained a love for art at a young age when she was a student at Victory Christian School. It was her art teacher, Judy MacIntosh, who noticed a gift in her.

Highland went on to pursue a degree in elementary education with a certification in art. After college, she started out as a long-term substitute in the art room at Briarglen Elementary.

Before Highland started teaching permanently in her hometown of Tulsa, she decided to do a little globe-trotting and moved to Indonesia for four years. There, she taught kindergarten, fourth grade, drama, and of course, art.

When she returned to Tulsa, she briefly taught second grade. Then it just so happened that the same position at Briarglen Elementary she had subbed for years earlier became available. Everything came full circle, and she ended up absolutely loving the job.

While at Briarglen, Highland gave her students several opportunities to impact others through their art — both locally and internationally.

One year, in honor of Nurse’s Day, her Briarglen students (kindergarten through fifth grade) drew pictures to showcase what they thought nurses did. Many of the students created pictures of a nurse who had personally touched their lives or the life of someone they loved. The pictures were given to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa and distributed throughout the hospital so that nurses and patients could be inspired.

Highland used this project as a life lesson opportunity. “I talked about how art has the power to heal, and how even though you’re small, you can still make a difference,” she says.

The nurses at Cancer Treatment Centers of America wrote thank you cards to Highland’s students, letting them know that their art had truly touched them. One fifth-grade student expressed true surprise that her art had impacted someone.

“I didn’t know I had the power to change someone,” the student told Highland.

Highland’s students also used their art to reach the other end of the world after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Her second-grade students at Briarglen Elementary hosted an awareness-raising event at their school. The evening included booths where they sold bracelets, origami figures and candy, as well as a concert and a poetry presentation. The class raised $430 for Nepali earthquake victims.

Highland then gave the students the opportunity to select which nonprofit in Nepal they wanted the money to go toward, and they chose Tiny Hands, an organization that fights human trafficking and helps orphans.

After three years at Briarglen, Highland spent a year at Summit Christian Academy, also teaching art. She says one of her most memorable moments there was having a student connect art with something from his own life experience. The student has cerebral palsy, and he created a piece of art depicting a fish fighting against the current.

“He represented his own struggle within that,” Highland recalls.

In 2018, Highland began teaching at Bixby Central Elementary, where she wowed students starting on day one with memorable characters and colorful costumes. As a tool to introduce classroom procedures, she transforms into Glenda the Good, who shows the right way to do things, and a boy who is still trying to learn the right way.

“I want to engage their imagination before we get into creating,” Highland says. “It’s like a little theatrical production. Sometimes you have to be silly to engage the kids.”

Highland found that another way to relate to her students is through YouTube. She recently started a YouTube channel — Art with Miss Highland — where she displays her art.

Highland is also committed to creating her own art through mediums such as oil paint and card making. In the summer of 2018, Highland spent six weeks in Uganda creating a work of art at an orphanage, Bless the Children. She spent the summer making a mural of a world map with flags of various countries. She also had the opportunity to teach the children how to paint while she was there.

“The kids in the orphanage had never seen a world map before. I saw a teacher using the mural to teach his students,” she says.

April 2020 Cover