When Judy Stanko told her students recently that she plans to retire from her job as an elementary art teacher at the end of the school year, they thought that meant she’d lost her interest in art. She explained that no, she is just ready to start the next chapter in her life as an artist.
Stanko estimates she has taught art to thousands of children during her 46 years as a school art teacher, working at many of Milford’s elementary schools over the years.
Becoming an art teacher was a natural step for Stanko, who lives in Seymour. She studied art and actually expected she would become a graphic artist when she graduated from college.
“But I took a child psychology course in which we had to observe children,” Stanko said. “So I got permission from parents in my neighborhood to let me do a project with their children. We did an art project.”
The children liked the project so much they wanted to come back, and Stanko realized this was her calling.
“I thought, I have something here,” she said. “It was just a natural.”
Stanko has spent most of her years teaching at Meadowside Elementary School, where she will finish her career at the end of June. She also teaches one day a week at Pumpkin Delight School, and she’s worked in Kennedy, Mathewson, Live Oaks, and some city schools that have closed, like Simon Lake, West Main Street, Fort Trumbull, and Seabreeze schools.
She couldn’t really guess how many children she’s handed paint or crayons to, “probably thousands and thousands,” she said.
Today, some of her former students are her colleagues. Other former students have children in her classes, and still other former students have grandchildren in her classes.
She hasn’t tired of the work.
“The best thing is having fun every day with the children,” Stanko said. “They see things new and differently. They give you a different perspective.”
Last week, Stanko and other art teachers and art students gathered at the Parsons Government Center for what would be Stanko’s last system-wide art show, a colorful event that showcases the artwork of Milford’s students.
“I had made a big sign for Mrs. Stanko, and Bob Davis, principal at Meadowside, had all of the students sign it during lunchtime,” said Daryle Ann Czajkowski, art teacher at Live Oaks School. “She was very happy and surprised at it. Despite the fact that all the kids knew it, not one leaked the surprise to Mrs. Stanko, and she was really excited when she saw it.”
Retired art coordinator Frank Vespi wrote a note about Stanko on the evening’s program, over which is a photograph of Stanko.
“She is a gentle, kind and sweet lady with a quiet and dignified manner,” Vespi wrote.
“Besides having touched an immense amount of young artists in the span of the years since she began teaching in , Mrs. Stanko is an accomplished artist and a successful craftsperson.”
After June, Stanko’s new focus will be her own art, for which she hasn’t had as much time over the years as she would have liked.
Stanko turned a bedroom in her home into an art studio, and that’s where she paints her impressionistic florals that she has shown in art shows over the years in Kent and Lyme.
But teaching is demanding, and there really wasn’t the time for showing her work. Now there will be.
And she will paint more, she said, pointing to several of her finished paintings.
“Floral still life, that’s my thing,” Stanko said. “It’s rare that I do one that doesn’t have flowers. I love flowers. That’s my passion.”
The iris, she said, may be her favorite flower. But they don’t bloom long, so over the years, it was hard to paint one because her schedule conflicted with the flower’s short bloom time.
Now she hopes to have time for the iris.
There are other items that recur in her paintings: teapots and similar household items she collects at tag sales to use as props in her work.
Stanko plans to create a website and a digital portfolio of her art, and hopes to start showing and selling her pieces through a gallery.
That’s her new goal, and she brought her paintings to school recently to explain to her students that this is what she does, that she isn’t leaving art, just setting off on a different path.
But so many years of teaching will stay with her, long after June. She said she will miss the students.
If she had one word of advice to pass along to new teachers, it would be this: “Everything you say and everything you do leaves an impression on the young mind. You always want to put a positive spin on things.”