Southern High art teacher Michael Bell has won national awards, has helped his students win the national Rising Star Award four years in a row, was named Teacher of the Year—and that’s just during his day job.
When Bell isn’t teaching or running the art department at Southern, he is working on a narrative thematic series of paintings for his “buddies” on the HBO TV show The Sopranos.
One may wonder why a nationally recognized artist with TV star buddies is teaching in a high school art department, but for Bell the answer is simple—he loves the kids.
“I love this, being around kids, it gives me the juice,” Bell said. “Kids have so many ideas. Imagine being surrounded by artists with amazing ideas all day long, it is so cool to have that. If I was alone in my studio all day I would go crazy. I love the kids and the relationships we form.”
On Feb. 15, the College Board awarded Bell the William U. Harris Award of Excellence, a national award given to teachers who demonstrate a commitment to serve and inspire young people.
But it wasn’t always national recognitions for Bell. When he first came to Southern 19 years ago he was a part-time educator teaching just two classes. Since then, he has risen to chair of the department, started a nationally sponsored art show called ArtQuest for students, and expanded the Southern art department to include five full-time teachers—the most in the county.
“I always wanted to do for kids what nobody did for me,” Bell said. “I know there is talent in everybody, it is just a matter of pulling out personal stories and getting them to find out why they are creating it or why it is important to them.”
What is perhaps one of Bell’s most remarkable accomplishments is the number of times one of his students has won The Rising Star Award. Each year the National Art and Education Association awards one student in the nation the award—one of Bell’s students has won the last four years in a row.
“It’s crazy. Each year I am like, 'I don’t know if they are going to give it to us again,'” he said. “But the quality of the work is there each year and it is hard to beat us.”
Bell also works hard to ensure his students get the money they need for college. Last year alone they had $2,256,000 in scholarship offers, which is something Bell says they try to build off of each year.
Bell said that he knows a day will eventually come where he has to give up teaching to further pursue his art career. He spends many weekends already traveling all over for different shows and jobs. But for now, he is happy working with the kids who inspire his work.
“It’s not about curriculum; it’s about the relationships I have with the kids and helping them pull out stories from their work,” Bell said. “I want to be a teacher that leads by example, how can I tell them their work is good if I haven’t made it to gallery shows? I need to lead a path for them.”