When she was sketching out a plan for her life, Rachel Proctor knew art was going to be a vibrant element. Growing up, she was naturally drawn to art as a creative outlet, as a way to express herself. In school, art teachers helped Proctor shade in sections she was missing, introducing her to artists, mediums and skills she needed to advance her understanding of the subject.
Proctor, Mt. Hope/Nanjemoy Elementary School art teacher and the Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) nominee for The Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year awards program, started her career in 2008 as a fourth-grade teacher at Mt. Hope before becoming the school’s art teacher in 2019.
“Rachel is one of the most creative teachers I have ever worked with, and she uses that creativity to engage and inspire her students,” Margo Barbone, retired science teacher, said. “She has a natural gift for creating lessons that are meaningful.”
Proctor steers lessons rather than allowing students to self-direct their projects. “I do like to do more guided projects,” she said referencing a painting project third-grade students were recently working on. “They do make some of their own choices, they pick the color scheme and what the end project is going to look like, but they have to follow along.” Once the project wraps up, students will see the final project, and some will be happy with the results while others will not. “Some of the kids over blended [the paints] and they’re not going to be happy with it, but that’s where the learning happens,” Proctor said.
Mt. Hope Principal Mike Hoffman calls Proctor’s classroom a “highly student-centered learning environment. As soon as you walk into Mrs. Proctor’s art classroom, you will easily see the fun and engaging lessons,” he said.
Proctor has been an artist since childhood. She was one of those kids who could create something out of nothing. Rifling around in the recycling bin, giving discarded items a new life, she developed into someone who literally could turn trash into treasure. Seeing beyond a material’s original use, Proctor’s artist vision was being honed. “As a kid I was always doing something, I was always making stuff,” she said. “I would dig in the trash and recycling. Then I became the person who could make stuff.”
Throughout her time in school – she’s a product of CCPS, attending Indian Head Elementary, General Smallwood Middle and Henry E. Lackey High schools – she was shepherded by art teachers at all levels who cultivated her love of and interest in art. Her elementary school teacher entered Proctor’s work in an art show and drove her to the reception when her family couldn’t. A field trip to New York City in middle school allowed Proctor to visit museums, expanding her knowledge of art and artists. “It opened up my eyes to new materials and new ways to do things,” Proctor said.
By the time she was in high school, Proctor was delving into studying photography and ceramics. “Those art classes were the drivers for all my education,” she said. “I was never academically super strong, but I could shine that way through art.”
It was also in high school that she considered a career in education, thanks to an after-school job at a daycare. Of course, she would like to be an art teacher, but at the time, teaching was an ultra-competitive field and an advisor at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) encouraged Proctor to pursue a general education degree. She began classes at CSM before transferring to Bowie State University and in 2008 she started at Mt. Hope as a fourth-grade teacher. She earned her master’s in reading education from Towson University in 2018. While Proctor was a classroom teacher at Mt. Hope, staff members, including the school’s former principal Kristin Shields, encouraged her to consider teaching art. Eventually, she earned her certification in art education and was able to stay at Mt. Hope. “I like this school,” Proctor said. “It’s a good little secret.”
Taking over the art room in 2019, Proctor soon found herself teaching students through Zoom when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to meet in person. Without the jugs of paint, pans of watercolors and other materials within a student’s reach at school, Proctor found that some were lacking the most basic of supplies at home. “Some of them didn’t have a pencil and sheet of paper,” Proctor said. “So, we got sketchbooks out to them. I like the fact that we can bring that to them. I tell them, ‘You can make stuff, you can create.'"
She lets her students know that an interest in art can lead to a career. “I try to link arts to jobs,” she said. “Photography, cake decorating … you don’t just have to paint and be that type of artist. I want students to see that art can be part of their lives and not just a hobby. Or even if it is just a hobby, that it’s just as satisfying.”
Students appreciate that Proctor finds creative ways to connect them to the curriculum. “When I was struggling with a subject or needed help, Mrs. Proctor explained it in different ways until it made sense to me,” said Penny Kriebel, a rising Lackey senior who was a student of Proctor’s in fourth grade. “She made her class interactive and fun for the whole class to help us. Mrs. Proctor also made a point to make sure that school was not just about tests and grades. She made sure that the students were not just learning but enjoying what they were learning.”
While art is her focus at Mt. Hope, Proctor also works with younger students on reading skills, visiting classrooms and working with small groups of students. She has also served as a coach of the school’s math team, was the building representative for the Education Assocation of Charles County (EACC) and has led professional learning presentations. Proctor supports Mt. Hope by taking part in academic nights, paint nights and community art shows.
The mother of a young child, Proctor carves out time to focus on her personal art — currently she’s into print making. A mural she created can be seen at Wee Bean Coffee Roasters in La Plata and she’s working with the business to design coffee labels. She creates artwork for a zine, has had pieces on display at Shop 53 Custom Tattoo and Art Studio and participates in local art events such as the La Plata Farmer’s Market art takeover.
“I want my students, my school and my community to see how powerful the arts can be,” Proctor said. “After all, it has forever impacted my life.”
Proctor will be honored by the Board of Education at its June 13 meeting. Charles Whittaker, a teacher at the Center of Applied Technology North in Severn was named The Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year for 2023.
Charles County Public Schools provides 27,598 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 37 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Kathy Kiessling, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Nikial M. Majors, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.
CCPS provides nondiscriminatory equal access to school facilities in accordance with its Use of Facilities rules to designated youth groups (including, but not limited to, the Boy Scouts).