If you had a class in art, it’s very likely your West Liberty teacher was Deborah Weiss.
After 32 years, Weiss isn’t hanging up her art tools, but is calling it quits as a teacher in the West Liberty School District with the end of the school year and she says, “I can honestly say it’s NEVER been dull.”
“It can be challenging and invigorating and, at times, exhausting, Weiss said of teaching. “I tried to be a compassionate and passionate educator. I was fortunate to have principals that let us be professionals, respecting and supporting our strengths. It wasn’t a job, it wasn’t just a career, it was a life.”
Raised in Stuart, Iowa, about 40 minutes west of Des Moines, Weiss started her college education at Iowa State University but then met her husband, Rick, a farmer from Atalissa, who continued to court Deb after graduating, traveling to Ames before the pair decided to get married 49 years ago. The change determined that her degree would come from the University of Iowa in December 1975 after student teaching at West Liberty.
She aid she simply loved art and “seemed to be good at it,” even though she also liked the logic of math. “When I’m doing art, I just totally escaped to another space or place. In my youth, there were no art teachers in the elementary schools, the teachers just incorporated it into their lessons and I always seemed to especially enjoy those creative times.”
She said by the 1960s, Iowa required art be offered if a school was to be certified. “I had my first real art teacher my freshman year of high school. She was part of my inspiration to become an art teacher,” Weiss said.
She started teaching mid-year of the 1975-76 school year as the grades 5-8 middle school art teacher “because the middle school teacher there that I had student taught under just really didn’t like the job.”
After eight years and 12 months after her first child was born, Weiss left teaching for one year that turned into 12 years when my three children were young. “I did a one-year stint as the full-time study hall monitor/substitute teacher one year before returning full-time to teaching in 1998, returning to teach lower elementary art and some levels of middle school, traveling between two buildings for six years. By the fall of 2004, she transitioned to the high school level where Weiss has been in the 17 years since.
She says her first year of teaching was much different from today, noting in particular, she remembers that the junior high classes segregated the girls from the boys. “I had a delightful class of 16 girls in eighth grade while the eighth grade boys’ class was a much more challenging group of 30!”
She recalls some of those boys didn’t even go on to high school as they thought an eighth grade education was enough and one of the boys turned 16 before the end of his eight grade year, “so he just quit in April after his birthday.”
She says she may have been an inspiration to some of those students. “Of those girls, two later became teachers in the district (Midge Jennings and Carolyn Probst) and ended up retiring before I did,” Weiss said.
The teacher said she had some talented artists through the years. “One is Carlos Maldonado, who has turned professional artist and takes quite a few commissions. Carlos tried a wide range of drawing in all kinds of sizes. He liked to use a mechanical pencil and sometimes would do miniatures with all kinds of detail, but he painted a lot, too. I remember that he had great discipline and would just continually work on the art. It has been such fun to watch his style grow and change through the years. He now does a lot of plein air painting, too.
Another student artist, Morgan Nichols, has been hired as Weiss’ replacement, noting she also helps Weiss with the art as a superintendent at the Muscatine County Fair. “She won best of Junior Art at the fair when she was in high school and I was glad to see she chose a career in art education,” Weiss stated.
“I don’t know that I ever stressed singularly that kids needed to know the importance of art. I think they just soaked it up when they allowed themselves to be immersed in it” Weiss said. “I always tried to incorporate artists from history into their lessons so they could actually become in awe of some of the wonderful art that is out there all over the world. I do this thing called Compare and Contrast between two artworks in my drawing/painting classes and in the sculpture classes.
She said one student, Pablo Espinosa, who had been in a sculpture class when he learned about the Venus of Willendorf in one of those lessons. When he took a trip to Europe with other students, Melanie Clark and Weiss one summer she said, Were in Vienna looking at brochures and Pablo says, ‘Hey, they have the Venus of Willendorf!’”
“With his persuasion, he convinced the other kids in our group that we should take the time to go see it,” Weiss said. “I, of course, was thrilled he remembered that little lesson from art class and we all were in awe when we saw this little tiny female sculpture from so many years ago in history.”
“I do think that when I began teaching Advanced Placement Art History, those students had their eyes really opened to the wide world and long history of art. When I would take them to the Art Institute in Chicago, it was such fun to see their responses when they saw the actual originals of some of the pieces that we had studied,” she said.
Although having a passion for calligraphy before the age of computers and hoping to “dabble in it” again, she does a lot of acrylic paintings today and even meets with a group of eight women k known as the “Wild Women of Art” almost every Saturday morning, trying different “stuff” and critiquing each others work.
A member of the West Liberty Area Arts Council (WLAAC) and chairman of the new Brick Street Art Gallery soon to open downtown, Weiss said that will keep her busy and credits Lisa Wertzbaugher, Cara McFerren, Clare Palmer, Janet Rees, and Monica Leo with all their efforts toward the “exciting endeavor.” Opening at the end of June in the space currently occupied by Liberty Social Club between the Index and Fred’s Feed, she plans “to make a little art and do some traveling, including getting to a sisters reunion in New York.
The teacher has three “wonderful grown children,” Andrea Weiss, Rachel Johnson (married to Jeff Johnson) and John Weiss and an “absolutely delightful three-year-old granddaughter, Harper. “We are so lucky that none of them are too far away, and that granddaughter brings a whole new aspect of magic into our lives! I’m also grateful that my family has been supportive of my art educator role, for it has sometimes meant sacrifices for them.”
Although saying her worst year teaching was from 2019-2020 because of the pandemic, she said it forced her into a new way of teaching, having “to learn to use a bunch of stuff that now seems pretty commonplace,” from Google Meet (similar to ZOOM) to trying to keep AP Art History students up to speed so they could continue to prep for the AP Exam.
“I remember I spent hours sitting around reading how to do various parts of the whole Google Suite to try to be able to better teach my students,” Weiss said/ “We have our Google Classroom, and to mention a few, our Google docs, Google slides, Google sheets, Google calendar, and Google drawing, just a lot of Google! Technology has really opened all kinds of possibilities. However, so much of teaching is really about relationship building, so one tries to make connections that just might click in one way or another.”
The teacher was also a long-time advisor for the National Honor Society, a member herself at her own alma mater. When the adviser positioned opened up back in 2011 here at WLHS, she applied.
Raised among a large family with five brothers and five sisters, her dad insisted he simply “wouldn’t have time to go to our events” because of his occupation as a large animal veterinarian which presented some odd hours. “I was so proud that he did actually make it to my induction into the NHS,” she said.
“I guess that’s part of why NHS means so much to me. NHS is about scholarship, leadership, service, and character. Those are four pretty darn important aspects about life, I think.”
Weiss says she will miss teaching in West Liberty. “I have to say it’s been fun to teach generations of kids, to have taught parents and in a few cases, even grandparents, of students is pretty special,” she concluded.