Sandy Ragland said that as the Vilonia High School art teacher for the past 31 years, she has turned out many masterpieces — her students.
“I love seeing the kids’ faces light up when they get it. I love seeing them take themselves to the next level,” she said.
Ragland pioneered the art program at Vilonia when she began her teaching career fresh out of college.
She said she learned about the opening while attending a job fair at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The Vilonia School District wanted someone to teach English and art. With a double major, she said, she figured she had a decent chance at getting the job. When she interviewed, she joked that it was a choice between her and “two old guys with beards.”
The Vilonia School District has recognized Ragland and honored 16 other teachers for “exemplifying the highest standards of the teaching profession.”
Ragland said that during her first year of teaching, even though she taught many students in her English classes, she had only five art students. She said her art supplies were basically typing paper, poster board and paint in the five primary colors.
Today, she teaches Art 1, 2, 3 and AP 4; and Design 1, Design 2 and Paper Structures in classrooms filled to the max with students who turn out winning artwork that is juried by state judges each year.
She refers to the art program as “simply awesome” and to her students as her greatest works of art.
Her classroom is filled with color and a collection of drawings and paintings. A message is stenciled on the wall: “Every mark you make is an extension of who you are and what you are thinking.”
The message, Ragland said, is a constant reminder of an important life lesson. If she has an advantage over some teachers, Ragland said, it is because, “I get it. I get the kids.” Each one is different, and many times those around them don’t know “what road they are walking or the battle they are fighting,” she said.
Self-described as strict in the classroom, she said, she disciplines with dignity and that she doesn’t allow discipline to interfere with motivation.
Referred to as “Ms. R” by her students, some said their favorite thing about her is that she listens a lot, is passionate about art and has high expectations.
“I encourage and expect kids to do and try their best, to go out of their comfort zones and to forget the word ‘can’t,’” she said. “I have a structured environment with set objectives, goals and procedures, but we also laugh a lot. I want them to have a safe haven in the art room. Mostly, I just treat them the way I want to be treated.”
Many of the art students, she said, want to color outside the lines. That is OK with Ragland as long as they master the art rules before they start breaking them.
“When they learn, they can break the rules successfully,” she said.
Ragland said she is able to draw on her childhood experiences to help the students reach their potential. Throughout her childhood, she said, she was “always the new kid.”
“My family was sharecroppers,” she said, which meant they moved from state to state as the fruit crops were ready to harvest. At a young age, she began working alongside her parents and two brothers, doing what she could to help.
There was little money for clothing, shoes or toys. She said that as far back as she can remember, though, she enjoyed drawing.
Ragland said her parents, Coy Leon and Jessie Horton, recognized her passion for art and encouraged her, even though they couldn’t always afford to keep her in supplies. Most of the time, as a child, the ground was her easel, and she used a stick for drawing.
She had an active imagination, and she seldom allowed herself to be bored. She would scavenger items from the trash and create pieces of art. She said she realizes her parents did without necessities to give their children some special things.
“When I was little, my mom had been saving a little money
along to buy herself some shoes. She hadn’t had a new pair in a long time, and she needed them, but she bought me some art supplies instead,” Ragland said.
She said her parents were hard-working, honest people. They didn’t have a lot of formal education, but they were smart, creative and supportive of their children. She is grateful for her upbringing and the values instilled by her parents.
Ragland said she was a smart, artistic, curious child, but she had a speech impediment and a learning disability, dyslexia. As a result, she faced a lot of embarrassing situations, some because of uncaring teachers, she said. Ragland said she was scolded and hit on the left hand with a ruler for writing with that hand.
She said she was struggling and couldn’t read. That’s when Willie Horton, a teacher in the Marshall School District, told Ragland he was going to teach her to read.
“I learned how to learn, and that opened up a whole new world for me,” she said. “Now, I devour books, and I read two or three a week.”
Ragland graduated from Marshall High School. She has worked at several other jobs, including hauling hay, modeling shirts at a shirt factory and as an on-air personality at KCON AM radio station when it broadcast from Conway. She began working as a receptionist at the radio station, she said, and worked her way up to writing obituaries and serving as program director. That is where she was working when she landed the teaching position at Vilonia.
The other Vilonia teachers who were honored are Chere’ Beavers, Erica Russell, Brad Wallace, Lori Barton, Tambrey Kinley, Amy Lock, Terina Atkins, Jolene Sanders, John Allison, Renee’ Henry, Sherry Loyd, Cara Cates, Kindall Denmon, Anne Lichtenstein, Robin Hall and Pam Fulmer.
It was other teachers, Ragland said, who inspired her to be where she is today.
“I had many great teachers, but my art teacher, Maxey Jo Horton, and my drama, history and speech teacher, Nancy Miller, (of the Marshall School District) inspired me to become a teacher,” she said. “They were smart, encouraging, amazing teachers.”
As far as her advice for new teachers, Ragland said, she encourages them to prepare lesson plans every day and go through life maintaining a sense of humor. If you don’t have one — get one, she said. Also, she said teachers should love their jobs.
“If you don’t love to teach, get a different job,” Ragland said. “Otherwise, you are possibly affecting, in a negative way, a young person’s entire existence.”