Top Teacher: Christine Contakes

Educating people has always come naturally to Christine Contakes. As the oldest of three siblings, she positioned herself in a leadership role early on, caring for her little sisters. But the skills she utilizes in the classroom today were honed over the years by the teachers she admired while she was a student. “I have been most inspired by the teachers who took the time to get to know me as a person,” she says. “They really noticed when I worked hard at something and made sure to convey that to me.”

Contakes, an educator with 28 years of experience, teaches visual arts at Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News to grades nine through 12. She is also a National Arts Honor Society sponsor and an advisory coordinator for a program meant to create an open line of communication between students, faculty and parents.

Before teaching, Contakes started out as a graphic designer but left the glamorous life of advertising to help shape young minds. “I love working with kids; that’s number one,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to do something in the arts field, but I really, really like working with young people. I like the variety that happens every day. It’s a lot of fun to be learning with them, researching things and developing lessons for them in a way that I’m a student, too.”

Establishing mutual respect with her students and being interested in them as human beings is the most important part of her relationship with them. “When you’re kind and respectful to them and understand all of the parts of being a human being, they respond really well, and it motivates them to learn.”

But Contakes also realizes that students are being pulled in a lot of different directions and they have other obligations to concentrate on. She tries to be cognizant of these facts in her approach to being an educator. “I think there is a real time crunch, and I think kids in general are overscheduled,” she says. “Teachers really feel that. For example, if a student is absent for whatever reason—a field trip, a sporting event, an illness, a family emergency or whatever it happens to be—it’s difficult finding and making time with the student to be able to catch up. They’re scheduled from first thing in the morning to the moment their heads hit the pillow at night, and I feel a lot of them are not getting enough sleep.”

This is where being an advisory coordinator helps. “When kids join clubs, we tell them that they are going to be limited in the time they have because they are already involved in sports, acting, performances, as well as academics,” Contakes explains. “We try to teach them how to set boundaries for themselves so they don’t bite off more than they can chew.”

Communication with parents is just as important. “It’s about ongoing conversations on things like how much sleep they should be getting, how much time they should and shouldn’t be spending on homework, and making sure students get a good balance in their lives.”

It was a former student’s parent, Michelle Ford, who nominated Contakes as a Top Teacher, writing this in her online nomination form: “Mrs. Contakes opened up my daughter’s self awareness through art. The work that she presents to her students not only educates them on the discipline, but her zeal, dedication and sweet-centered attitude ignites life into her students, which shows in their work.”

Contakes continues to find inspiration from the people surrounding her, at home and at school. Her husband, Michael, is a math teacher who is completing his 30th year as an educator. “He is an inspiration and is dedicated to reaching kids by making learning fun for his students,” she says. “I am also inspired by, and have a profound respect for, the dedicated colleagues with whom I work, and for my students who challenge and motivate me. Truly, I learn as much as I teach!”

Barrett Baker
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