For Newton High School teacher Raymond Olais, there was no question that art would be a big part of his life, as he embraced his creative tendencies at a young age.
"I was an artist all along. I think artists have that; that's something that's kind of God-given. When they're young, they find out they like art; they're drawing all the time," Olais said. "That was me...and so when you're looking at college and careers, that was kind of like the road that I should take, so that's what I did."
While following that path, it wasn't until he met his wife (Patrice, also an art teacher at NHS) at the San Francisco Art Institute that the idea of teaching entered his mind. In a discussion with his future spouse, Olais said she mentioned her interest in going into education and a "light went on" for him. After graduating from the art institute, the two went on to earn degrees in education from Emporia State University.
Both husband and wife were up for the same teaching position at NHS initially — the final two applicants — and while Olais deferred the job to Patrice (since she was from Newton), knowing the other would have to seek work out of town, it wasn't long before he joined his wife as an employee of USD 373 — officially beginning his teaching career at NHS in 1993.
Though Olais is stepping away first, after 25 years in the classroom at NHS, he admitted there is plenty he will miss upon his retirement at the end of the current semester. Over the years, Olais has taught in a number of mediums — painting, drawing, graphic design, murals, sculptures — and had the chance to mold a lot of young minds.
"He's had a great impact on the community with his art knowledge and art skills and the work that he does on the murals. He's made a huge impact on the student body," said NHS principal Lisa Moore. "His classes are full every semester. There's a great desire for students to learn from him."
Getting to do art on the side in addition to teaching allowed Olais to bring his professional perspective into the classroom, which helped foster a creative atmosphere that benefitted both teacher and student. While Olais was happy to share his experiences as an artist and the opportunities available to students, he noted he also wanted those he taught to come to it naturally should they choose to pursue a career in art.
"I don't necessarily push it on kids and say, 'oh, you're gonna be an artist.' I think that's a choice they have to make, but I try to give them an environment where they can enjoy it and not have any reservations about it and just let them be themselves and kind of discover what they can do with art," Olais said. "I'm not gonna make them into Michelangelos or Picassos or Norman Rockwells; I'm just gonna try to help them improve their skills and then give them that guidance that if art is in their life, there is opportunity out there."
Offering the chance to be part of arts shows, join the art club and work on murals throughout the high school are other projects Olais has also been a part of, helping illustrate all that is possible in art.
Teaching is something Olais knew was a good fit almost immediately, both because of the flexibility allowed in pursuing other artistic passions and the stability of the job, while there is also some overlap in the ever-changing nature of both art and teaching.
"Early on, I used to grade myself; I still kind of do," Olais said. "It's kind of like a struggle at times to try to be the best...I still think there's some elements that I could still do more or I could've done this lesson better or we could've done this differently."
Year in and year out, Olais had the opportunity to adjust and approach various lessons in different ways — and routinely did so. One of the constant pleasures, though, was seeing the enjoyment his students could take from art, whether in simply being recognized at the NHS art show at the end of the year (where students are able to display/show off what they've worked on) or finding a passion that they could pursue as illustrators, painters, art teachers, etc. That joy is something he said he wanted all of his students to experience.
"For some kids, it's an escape. They can be pressured with math scores and testing...and the pressures of parents telling them they need to do good in school and they have to maintain the high average and grades if they want to succeed in life," Olais said. "At the same time, you can enjoy life. You can enjoy high school by just taking an art class."
Retirement is something Olais noted he has been hinting at for some time — and something that will allow him to pursue more of his passion as an artist as well. To Olais, that passion is something you are born with and he is glad it led him to teaching, while also allowing him to help others find those same interests to pursue professionally.
"I think that's kind of the biggest plus of being an art teacher is that you get to see them (students) go on and you almost live vicariously through them. It's almost like you're reliving your youth as a young artist and you remember that excitement and that enjoyment," Olais said. "I think that's always the biggest takeaway from all of it."