Ellen Sayers' Artistic Vision Empowers Students to Be Their Authentic Selves

As Dean of Eleventh Grade and an Upper School IB visual arts teacher, Ellen Sayers uses her creative spark to help guide students to reach their goals, connect with one another, and be their best selves.

As Dean of Eleventh Grade and an Upper School IB visual arts teacher, Ellen Sayers uses her creative spark to help guide students to reach their goals, connect with one another, and be their best selves. We sat down with Ms. Sayers, who has been at Dwight for 18 years, to learn about her dual roles and her approach to unearthing the greatest potential in each student — artistically, academically, and in life beyond the classroom.

Where did your love for art come from?
It comes from my family! My mother was an interior designer, my father was an industrial designer, and my aunt, who worked at a museum, registered me for art classes as a young child. My family values intelligent design and making things, so we'd play with different materials to make sculpture and furniture — and even do home renovation together. In fact, my first sculpture was a snowman made with mud, which my mother encouraged me to play in! I always spent a lot of time in museums with friends and family for fun. It felt natural to pursue an artistic career.

What about art excites you?
When I began to formally study painting, I learned that art is a way to communicate without words. A person can be "moved" by breathtaking architecture or a vivid painting, and this visceral reaction connects the artist with his/her audience. A shared experience can happen without language. The intention to bring people together that drives the creative process is what fuels my passion for art.

Tell us about your personal spark of genius.
My creativity and imagination are my sparks of genius! I love to ask, "What if ... ?" when making and teaching art, and guiding students and parents through grade 11. My imagination and creativity help me find unexpected opportunities, processes, and solutions.

Please describe your journey to becoming a teacher and a dean.
Teaching has always come naturally to me. In college, I played field hockey and started and coached a lacrosse team. After college, I taught art to middle and high school students, as an artist-in-residence and art teacher. After receiving my Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, I led a team of monument conservators throughout New York City and taught graduate students about outdoor bronze sculpture conservation.

I returned to teaching visual arts full-time because I wanted to continue exploring diverse media, investigate the link of art and culture, and share the joy of making art with children. When I started at Dwight, I taught visual arts to students in kindergarten through ninth grade — and it was a blast!

I had been teaching for several years at Dwight when a colleague visited a study hall that I was proctoring. My rapport with the students was casual but clear, and my colleague suggested that I become a dean. I was interested in developing a relationship with students beyond the classroom, as students need extra support during these formative and challenging years in their lives. I served as the Dean of the Tenth Grade from 2005-14, and have been the Dean of Eleventh Grade since 2015.  

What is your educational philosophy?
Students learn best when they can take charge of their own learning process. They need to cultivate research and critical thinking skills, and they must take risks and reflect on failures, as well as successes. They also need to learn self-management and collaboration with a wide range of people. When students are empowered to direct their own learning, they become lifelong learners.

What makes Dwight's Visual Arts Program special?
Our IB Visual Arts Program is incredibly open to allow for each student's creativity. Our team — consisting of myself; Head of Visual Arts, Amanda Thompson; and art teachers Kate Frey, Lauren Gabriele and Gabrielle Hanlon — has a wide range of expertise. We rely on close collaboration to foster students' unique interests. Students come to the art studio with a desire to explore a medium, express an idea, or discuss any topic. We make sure they have the resources to grow.

Most importantly, students encourage each other. Upper School students paint alongside Lower School students in Art Spark, our after-school program for passionate student-artists in grades 1-12. Middle School students have explored Harry Potter together, integrating literature with imagination and art-making. Middle and Upper School students work together to construct their own fashion lines. Cross-grade collaborations are exciting because older students learn from and teach their younger peers.

I was impressed when I recently discovered that some eleventh grade art students share a single sketchbook to combine ideas and support each other. This is the type of trusting and creative environment that generates incredible artwork!

What unique challenges do eleventh graders face and how do you help them navigate this year?  
In eleventh grade, expectations change; students have to meet much higher standards and begin to make choices for university and beyond. They must be honest with themselves about goals, past mistakes, and future demands. I speak with students about developing their authentic interests and cultivating skills that empower them to take steps toward meeting their goals. Sometimes this requires tough conversations, but I find those are the most important ones. After all, students want to be prepared for their future.

I also introduce students to different ways of thinking about integrity and respect for others. High school is a time when they're developing their sense of self and it's important that they are exposed to various perspectives and learn the value of inclusivity.

What do you like about being an educator in an IB School and at Dwight in particular?
IB schools are forward-thinking and teach students to think deeply. I remember a tenth grader who complained about the MYP Personal Project and being forced to make interdisciplinary connections. Fast forward to his senior year when we were discussing an art exhibit. He linked the art to different cultures, his history class, current global politics, and art history. He had become so "IB"! The IB education guides students to analyze, synthesize, and produce their own interpretation. As an IB educator, every day is an adventure — I must be open to learning with my students and asking questions that encourage them to ask more questions in turn.

At Dwight, students graciously share their experiences and inquire about the experiences of others. Hearing diverse opinions can be challenging, but nothing worth doing is easy. I witness our students persisting through hard conversations, sometimes agreeing to disagree, and respecting differences. It's this level of respect and interest in learning about one another that energizes Dwight.

You received a PD grant from The Dwight School Foundation. How did you bring that learning back to the classroom?
With the support of The Foundation, I earned my master's in educational leadership and management at the University of Bath. This experience granted me the opportunity to connect with more international teachers, learn from their experiences, and develop lasting relationships.

As an educator, I learned more about the nature of a global education and how to navigate constant shifts in educational theory. I also studied different cultures' influence on the implementation of the IB curriculum in schools. As a visual arts teacher, I researched the changing role of art in society and how to better measure students' creative growth. As a dean, I learned how to promote a unified mission among faculty and the capacity for personal integrity and respect for others among students.

You recently went on a service-learning trip with students to Yunnan Province, China! Please tell us about that experience.
Our trip was incredible! We visited two public middle schools for grades 7-9, and taught students different activities, spent time playing with the students, and toured the local area together. There is significant economic disparity between urban and rural China, so we did not have heat and sometimes didn't have hot water. The people were incredibly gracious — they told us about their farming, shared their food, and asked to learn our stories, too.

I gained so much from the trip; it was transformative. I was reminded that "hard work" is culturally defined, and that relationships and people are a priority, not daily tasks. I learned that perceptions — of governance, family, success, beauty, and identity — are fluid. And I was reminded of the importance of silence, listening, and suspending judgment.

What do you hope that students took away from the trip?
As in all Dwight trips and exchanges, we hope that students expand their worldview, which tenth grader Chloe Liu says better than I could here.

Another student summed up what she learned by sharing, "Everyone has a story, and we need to learn those stories." Students were able to see firsthand that the world is diverse and there is no singular way of thinking or living.

We certainly agree — and we're fortunate to have Ms. Sayers reminding our students of just that every day!

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