Artist as educator
Ron Netten told me he was "shocked" to be named as the Outstanding Secondary Art Educator of the Year, but frankly, I'd only be shocked if he didn't own that plaque.
Netten has been an absolute treasure for Storm Lake High School for nearly 30 years, and has built an art education program that is simply stunning.
In a very gentle and unassuming way, he has reached out to engage countless young people - and some of them, had we not captured their imaginations with art, might well otherwise have slipped between the cracks.
Netten's art lab is my favorite room in the high school. It doesn't feel like a classroom or a lecture hall, but a place of creative function, with chunky block work stations, and shelves lined with a collection of all kinds of funky stuff just crying out to be turned into still-life studies. There are usually students rattling around on projects before and after hours.
Every trip to the high school, I make a beeline for the showcases in the commons, which rivals most any art gallery I've seen for spirit and creativity, if not size. There's always something unique and exceptional in the students' paintings, pottery, sculpture, photography and multi-media pieces, and having that explosion of art at the heart of the school gives the whole building a more exciting appeal.
Secondary schools center on math, science, civics, language and all of the core academics that are necessary to succeed in college or career, and that is as it should be.
But the school that also has exceptional teachers in art, instrumental and vocal music, drama and speech have a certain soul about them that goes beyond the kind of academics that can be measured on a pop quiz. They make lives richer. Storm Lake is blessed with such schools, and such educators.
Not all of us may find many uses for trigonometry or our memorization of early European civilization in our daily lives. Once we learn an appreciation of art, though, we are changed for good. Even if we don't find any great aptitude for making it ourselves, we will be better for it. We will rediscover and rediscover this love for all of our years. We won't take the sweet angle of the late afternoon sun for granted, or miss all the shades in the changing leaves.
We soon grow past our time of throwing footballs, shooting baskets and running races for our schools, but our artistic spark will serve just as well at 70 as at 17, and it is a form of learning that never becomes outdated.
I have to wonder how many kids have discovered something in themselves that they never expected, thanks to the patience and encouragement that Ron Netten has brought to the classroom. While some come to the profession with a blaze of enthusiasm that soon burns out, Netten has grown with his students, building on the programs every year. If you haven't seen the annual school art show, they have become an amazing experience. Netten and the fine people who work with him don't teach from mold or textbook, but help students to find and express their own unique view of the world through their art. As a result, it is innovative, refreshing, intriguing, insightful. It is no wonder so many have gone on to win awards, take part in important shows, win scholarships and pursue careers with an artistic bent.
Netten is an exceptional artist in his own right, especially in ceramics, and could probably make out fine as a full-time professional. Yet after 31 years in the classroom, he remains dedicated to teaching, and says his best moments are the chance to see inspiration appear in the eyes of his students when they find something artistic inside themselves.
Ron Netten might be shocked by this recognition, but no one else is - at least no one who has seen the way he has touched and inspired young people. There is an art to teaching as well, and Mr. Netten is one of our masters.