Meet Roxy Piersanti: CPS Teacher, Artist, Mother, and IPMM Board Member
Roxy Piersanti is a public school teacher, a mother, an artist, and a member of the IPaintMyMind board! A true Renaissance woman, Roxy has been helping IPMM for years, serving as the voice for educators on our board and steering the organization to fresh ways to support our teachers and students.
We’ve actually interviewed Roxy on the blog before, but we figured it was time to check back in. After all, the last few years of teaching have been pretty extraordinary. How has she been handling the rapid change?
As an organization that seeks to support teachers across the City of Chicago, it’s critical to recognize the evolving issues our educators are facing. Teaching and learning have changed and students have gone through immense trauma and instability. Everyone is just at the beginning of what will be a long process: taking stock of where we’re at now.
Lillie Therieau: How long have you been teaching and how did you first start out?
Roxy Piersanti: I’ve been a CPS teacher for ten years–well, actually eleven, but I had a baby so they took some of my time off of my years served. The misogyny in this district is real.
But, before I worked for CPS I worked at the National Museum of Mexican Art as a teaching artist for two years. It was truly one of the most enriching experiences in my life. I traveled to elementary and high schools across the city to teach art. It’s how I learned to manage a classroom and make do with what I had. A lot of the time, I was teaching out of my car.
It was such a cool way to get to know yourself at 21 as a creative and a teacher, and to get to know the city at the same time. It made me independent. I still bring my kids to the NMMA today for field trips and I teach my students what I learned there.
Lillie: When it comes to teachers teaching in communities that may not match the ones they grew up in, how do you foster respect and genuine connection with kids who may be having experiences very different from yours? Do you still feel like you are going through that learning process more than ten years in?
Roxy: Always. I am never done and I never want to be done. I grew up very close to my students, but we have lived totally different lives. I think having genuine empathy is huge. A lot of people think that they have empathy, but you don’t know what empathy means until you are sitting in front of a child who is telling you a story that you can never fathom happening to you. You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes, without feeling sorry for someone else’s experiences. It’s all about support. My students know where I am and they know that my door is always open. If you email me at 2am, as soon as I wake up, I’ll email you back.
As far as cultural exchange, I am genuinely interested in celebrating the culture that my students bring to the table. I think that’s so important. I am curious and I want to learn. I encourage my kids to tell me about their culture and what their family teaches them at home. I’ll send them home with things to do with their family or to share with their family, or I’ll ask them to bring in important objects or activities that they do with their families.I also try to use projects that allow each student to incorporate their own culture and identity, so they can feel real ownership over that they create. I focus a lot on Mexican art in the classroom because that’s what I know best from studying it in college and working at the NMMA, but many of my kids aren’t Mexican. They’re Ecuadorian or Guatemalan, and I ask them to teach me more about those experiences and histories and cultures.
Lillie: What difference does it make when students are encouraged to bring what they learn at home to school and what they learn at school home? Why is it important to break down those walls?
Roxy: That’s the whole point. I want their parents to feel celebrated and proud of what their kids are learning at school. I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed of being different. Each student is unique. I turn the tables and let my students teach me about what they’re experts in. Every family’s story is so powerful. I want my students and parents to know that I am celebrating them.
Lillie: What was it like teaching during the pandemic? What did that experience teach you about how teachers are valued, or undervalued, in our society?
Roxy: It was very difficult, because I was a new mom. There was postpartum depression and a newborn to take care of, all while I was adapting to a whole new way of teaching. Everything was happening at one time. I haven’t thought about it so much, because it’s one of those things that you just have to get through. But, it was insanely hard. I was lucky to have my mom and aunt come over and help me through it so my baby didn’t have to go to daycare during the pandemic.
It was so difficult to navigate while also being a new mom, but on the other hand I feel fortunate to have been able to stay home with my baby and continue nursing. In a different scenario that would have never happened. It’s weird like that.
As a teacher, I adapted in a way I never knew that I could. I had to learn new technology and ways of communicating with my students, completely on the fly. I was scaffolding every project so diverse learners can access these projects too, and figuring out how to get art supplies to my students’ homes. I got the hang of it eventually and ended up getting some amazing art back from my students during the pandemic.
Lillie: Do you feel like students valued art class differently during (and after) the pandemic?
Roxy: Absolutely. It was so needed. I have seen such an uptick in kids who are interested in art. Behavior is harder than I have experienced in a long time because students haven’t been to school in so long, but the kids are really invested in the projects and the art. They’re happy to have it and they know how special it is. They appreciate the materials and know what it means to have access to these resources, coming from learning at home where they may not have had access to art supplies at all.
Students are really struggling this year, which makes sense. It’s such an adjustment coming back to school after such a lack of structure. They were so independent learning at home. It’s hard for them to come back to a much more structured atmosphere. However, art can provide that space for freedom and experimentation that students need.
Lillie: How did your feelings about what being a teacher means change? How do students and parents react differently to you as a teacher now, as opposed to before the pandemic?
Roxy: At UIC’s teaching program, there was an emphasis on social justice. They taught us that this is important work. It matters. Public schools need teachers who believe strongly in the right to quality education and who will fight for their kids. I’ve always been so empowered by that.
In my 10+ years at CPS, I’ve never felt more demoralized by the system until now. It’s been crushing to have to go on strike, just to get our basic needs met and protect our physical safety. It shouldn’t have had to happen. The neighborhood where my school is located was at over 20% Covid positivity last year when they tried to make us come back to in-person learning. We taught outside to protest in the Chicago January weather, to show CPS that it was safer to teach outside. I was literally pumping, working outside in the freezing cold because my employer didn’t care to prioritize me and my family’s safety. There was such a lack of trust. It was a very dark time, full of stress and anxiety.
Going back to work after you have a baby is really tough for anyone, but adding the fear of Covid-19 on top made it almost impossible to navigate. Having to leave your baby is so hard, and then there’s extra stress of having to worry if you brought Covid-19 home with you. It was so hard to hear people saying that teachers are lazy and didn’t want to work. This is a job I give 110% to. I do it because I love it. I’ve given so much of my life to this job.
There are so many things that I would go on strike for before my own pay. I’ve been on strike from 2012 to 2022 for a substantial period of days. My family has lost money because I think it’s more important to stick up for my kids. The schools should be good. I should want to send my own kid to the school I work at. Every student deserves that. I full heartedly believe in the mission of being a public school teacher.
I felt so much support from our parents. I feel so lucky to work at a school where the parents support us and it is a luxury that not every teacher gets. I’ve had parents out on the picket lines with us and they tell me that they understand why we did what we did. It was to protect them and their kids. I would do it all again. We literally stopped the trajectory of the wave of Covid-19 with our work stoppage last year. We saved people’s lives by flattening the curve.
You have to love what you do to work in a city that doesn’t support its teachers. It’s demoralizing. If I had a dollar for everytime that people suggested I move to the suburbs and teach there! What don’t they understand? This is what I love.
Lillie: What has it been like to go back to in-person teaching?
Roxy: I am so lucky because I work at a school that has an arts budget. I’ve never had that before and it’s been so helpful. The administration at my school really cares about art and is intentional about funding it. During the pandemic I was able to accumulate materials and bring them into the classroom when we went back to school. I have everything I need. Most CPS schools don’t have such robust arts funding and I feel really lucky.
This year I took my kids to the National Museum of Mexican Art and we had two organizations come and teach classes in our classroom. If Covid-19 hadn’t been happening, I would have taken my students on more field trips. Lots of my students don’t get the chance to explore the city, especially downtown. So beyond art, these trips are about allowing my kids to experience Chicago and learn about it. We live in the best city in the world and everyone deserves to have the chance to enjoy it.
However, there is a lot of public art in the neighborhood my school is located in. My kids see it when they go to and from school and we can talk about it in class. I love to teach my students about mural artists like Sentrock. It helps me show them that they could be artists too. It’s not so far-fetched to make a living doing art these days. It’s a viable career path and it’s important to me to show that to my kids.
Lillie: Why did you first get involved with IPaintMyMind? Why do you think the Shared Walls program is so effective for students?
Roxy: I first got involved with IPMM when I worked at a school that had no arts budget. At that time, Evan was trying to get art hung in schools in all 50 wards, so I reached out to him. I asked him if he had art in Austin. We were really struggling at that time, because we’d just had the death of a student at my school. I thought that bringing art into the school would be important for my students and show them that they hadn’t been forgotten. I wanted to fill the halls with art.
There was legitimacy to be had from having professionals come in and install art from working artists in the school. The school building itself was huge. It was meant to serve thousands of kids, but we only had 200 students. The halls were really empty and it felt like no one really went there. It wasn’t a good atmosphere for the students, but I thought art on the walls could kind of shift how it felt to go through those halls.
Art was always on the table to be cut when I worked at that school. My students’ families shopped at garage sales for art supplies and I spent thousands of my own dollars on materials. It was definitely my hardest teaching experience, but also the best and most impactful. When the art from IPMM was hung, my students were excited. There was definitely a buzz. We called it the art gallery hall and later on, we made murals in that same hallway as well.
Lillie: Is there anything else that you wanted to add before we wrap up?
Roxy: Well, I just want to add how grateful I am for my students and school community. We have been through so much together this past school year. I don’t think I would have been able to handle this stress and confusion as a middle schooler. My students are so resilient and so strong. I know that next year will be better. This year was all about figuring things out and taking stock of where we are. It can only get better.
Lillie here! As a CPS alumna myself, I am always astounded and emotional when I get to speak to CPS teachers. I know firsthand how dedicated and hardworking they are. They do the jobs of several people, acting as teachers, mentors, social workers, and administrators. I’m proud to work for an organization that provides resources and support for CPS teachers, hopefully alleviating some of their stressors.
If you’re a CPS teacher, make sure to check out our Self-Care Resources for CPS Teachers, our Free Lesson Planning Resources article, and our Visual Arts Education Curriculum! And please–never hesitate to reach out to us with any questions or requests.
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