Teaching art ‘is what I’m meant to do’

Rockstar teacher September Buys

Northview art teacher September Buys jokes with eighth grader Kennedy Huffman

If you had to describe September Buys using a verb, good luck choosing just one.

As a recent class begins at Crossroads Middle School, Buys swigs coffee from a metal mug that reads “Pentwater, Michigan” and moves toward the art room door to greet students. Today, they discuss “Nighthawks,” the iconic 1942 painting by Edward Hopper, then get to work independently using mediums they have chosen.

As they get settled, Buys weaves her way around the room: picking a stray sponge off the floor and tossing it into a clean paint tray, wiping water from the counter near sinks where brushes are rinsed, helping a student retrieve his art from a stubborn horizontal pull-out rack.

September Buys is this year’s National Art Education Association Gilbert A. Clark and Enid Zimmerman Leadership Advocacy Award recipient

Once this group of seventh graders is settled, Buys moves from group table to group table. At one, she advises Braden Thomas how to best affix pipe cleaner limbs to paper mache figures he’s assembling. At another, she uses an X-Acto knife to cut cardboard petals for a bouquet of 3D flowers being produced by Averie Snell.

“I get all my steps in before noon. That’s a fact,” Buys tells a visitor as she taps the fitness monitor on her wrist.

As class is wrapping up, Frank McPherson approaches her to talk through a three-part painting he has in the works: “I’m doing something where there’s hell, then a galaxy, then heaven,” he tells her.

Buys’ eyes light up, and she makes a beeline for her own computer, saying to Frank over her shoulder, “Oh my gosh, you should see this.” She pulls up a triptych by Dutch painter Heironymous Bosch, then writes the artist’s name on a sticky note and hands it and an iPad to Frank, urging him to research the artist further.

‘One of My Easier Days’

It’s Thursday: “one of my easier days,” Buys explains. Today she will repeat this class with three groups of students at Crossroads, then head to Highlands Middle for a 35-minute class with sixth graders. 

After that it’s a standing meeting with Deputy Superintendent Liz Cotter to plan teacher activities as part of Buys’ new, added role as coordinator of new teacher growth and accountability. And, if this is an “on” week, she will head back to Crossroads for after-school art club. But she has to check her calendar to know for certain.

Northview art teacher September Buys divides her days among several district buildings

Oh, and she also works with students in grades K-4 at West and East Oakview Elementary Schools and at Field School.

“The first couple weeks of school I would go home, pull a lawn chair out in the yard and just stare,” she says, then breaks into laughter. “Now it’s fine. Now I have little blocks of time where I know I can breathe. It’s a lot, but we’re making it happen.”

Besides, she admits, “I like having a full plate. It feels rewarding to me, to be busy.” 

Others have noticed that she makes it happen.

Buys, a 2009 Michigan Art Teacher of the Year honoree, is this year’s National Art Education Association Gilbert A. Clark and Enid Zimmerman Leadership Advocacy Award recipient. Those are not the only two recognitions, but she doesn’t want them listed.

“The awards are nice, but not why I do what I do,” she said. “I’m just happy to bring art to others and hope they become friends. Life is much better with creativity.”

She calls this most recent award “overwhelming, honestly. This one’s like a next level kind of thing… I have to do this 50-minute lecture in this big room. I’m really nervous about it, actually. This one’s a big deal.”

She gives a big sigh, then smiles. “But it will be OK.”

The Muskegon native grew up in Macon, Georgia. Her family moved to Pentwater when she was in seventh grade. After graduation, Buys went to Western Michigan University intending to become a drafting teacher. She was good at drafting, she recalled, and got experience leading a class as a high school student there when the junior high industrial arts teacher was out sick.

Northview art teacher September Buys cuts cardboard petals for seventh grader Averie Snell’s project

While a student at WMU pursuing certification to teach drafting, she switched to art “mostly because the classes looked fun. And it was. And it is.”

She left WMU abruptly when her father and brother drowned in Lake Michigan. She used her student loan money to buy a mobile home near her mother, she said, and took extension classes through WMU in order to graduate.

Buys earned a master’s degree in art at Maryland Institute College of Art. Her first official school teaching job was at the elementary level at Vicksburg Public Schools. She taught high school art at Mattawan High School, then spent 17 years teaching art in Greenville Public Schools. She left last year to come to Northview, her home district where her two daughters attend.

She says teaching art “is what I’m meant to do.”

“I like working with the kids. They keep me young,” she says. “They give me things to worry about; sometimes they give me stress. The circumstances of my job give me stress sometimes.

“But when the grand scheme of it weighs out, I get a lot of joy out of what I do. I get to connect with kids and know that I’m making a difference. And when they come back to me when they’re older, that’s so rewarding.”

Like Alecia Moore.

When Buys left Greenville Middle School, she turned her classroom over to Moore, who was her student there about a decade ago. When Moore was in college at Central Michigan University, she visited the classroom to observe Buys while she taught.

She says Buys is “100% the reason why” she has gone into teaching art. “Just her lessons, how caring and dedicated she was exposing us to art. I remember how much she wanted us to express ourselves, and how many ideas she let us explore.”

Moore says she utilizes the same sort of “controlled chaos” (her words) as she learned in Buys’ classroom, having students work on many projects at once. “You get such better buy-in and variety from students when they get to choose,” she says.

Figuring It Out

Moore learned the teaching tactic from a master.

There’s a reusable grocery bag in Buys’ supply room that is filled with gently used teddy bears. She’s going to have her students paint the fronts of the fuzzy toys, then “stamp” their impressions onto colored paper, “kind of like X-rays,” she explains. “This will happen during our learning week. What I’ll have is one table doing the stuffed animals, another table printing on Plexiglas, the next table carving printmaking blocks… different experiences the kids rotate through that week. Then they’ll be able to make an educated choice what it is they want to do for their projects.

“This is one of those ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this’ jobs,” she says. “I don’t always feel that way, of course, but mostly. And this is my favorite age. They’re figuring out who they are and I can identify with that. Even as an adult, I feel like I’m still figuring out who I am.”

CONNECT

Buys is a member of the Lakeshore Visual Artists Collective

See Buys’ work at GRCC through March 27

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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