Renee Berg has been an art teacher for 32 years, helping her students learn the skill of communicating visually. She continues to do that today in her art classroom at Mitchell Middle School.
And she was recently recognized by her peers for her work and achievements in the field of art education by the South Dakota Art Education Association, an organization that strives to bring quality, standards-based art education to South Dakota schools.
Berg said she was honored by the recognition, even if it feels a little strange to be singled out among other great teachers in both the Mitchell School District and across the state.
“Awkward,” said Berg with a laugh when asked about her feelings about receiving the award. “I work with a really great group of art teachers, and you don’t do it by yourself. You do it with each other.”
Berg teaches art to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Mitchell Middle School, where she encourages them to improve their visual communication skills. She and her students work in a number of classic mediums such as paint and sculpture, but she tends to focus on finding the voice of the student rather than emphasizing any one artistic style.
“Really, I just want to teach kids how to communicate visually. I say I like to work with kids. Kids are my medium,” Berg said. “I enjoy helping them develop their communication skills, express themselves, read symbols and images from around the world.”
Berg’s passion for teaching goes back to her early years. She got her first taste of teaching others when she was a swimming instructor at the age of 14, and the fact that her parents were both teachers helped her develop a keen sense of what it meant to lead a classroom.
A native of Fremont, Neb., she attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney on scholarships for art and music. She has also taught at Mitchell Christian, Longfellow Elementary School and Mitchell High School. But she found an audience she especially enjoys in the students at Mitchell Middle School, who she said she finds both entertaining and inspirational.
“I love middle-schoolers," Berg said. "I find them to be extremely hilarious. I love their humor."
And she loves how they express themselves through their work in the classroom. Working with them on their assignments is a satisfying way to contribute to their understanding of the world. But, like many teachers, she genuinely enjoys spending time with them and watching them develop their skills.
“I teach because I like the kids. All I do is go to a job that I really like and work with people and kids I like,” Berg said. “It’s just a joy to watch them be proud of something they’ve produced.”
Berg also uses art in other avenues of her life. In the summer, she works with Mitchell Wesleyan Church and participates in church camps to help develop messages that help reinforce the learning of attendees. It’s another satisfying and fulfilling outlet for her artistic talents, she said, and one she hopes helps students embrace the learning experience.
She also sees the seeds of future teachers, whether it be in art or other disciplines, in the actions of her own students at Mitchell Middle School. One of her eighth-grade students in particular enjoys working with and helping special needs students, something Berg recognizes as a trait of someone who exhibits the care and patience that can be crucial in being a teacher.
She encourages that behavior, and makes sure to mention to her students that the world needs more good teachers in all fields of study.
“It wouldn’t necessarily have to be in art. You look for the ones who have a heart for others and who like to pull them aside and have patience,” Berg said.
Berg was presented with a plaque commemorating her recognition from the SDAEA last weekend and will attend another event for the award in March in Minneapolis. The honor has given her a chance to reflect on a 32-year career at the head of the classroom, she said.
Berg has been teaching for a long time, and she said she still thoroughly enjoys it. But one never knows what the future holds. She recently completed her seminary degree in December and is considering looking into a possible next phase of her career.
But that’s a decision to make a little farther down the road. For now, she plans to continue on the path she started on when she was 14, helping others understand new concepts and introducing them to a larger world outside their window.
“I still enjoy my job and have a great principal who I love to work with. At the moment, I’m here. Until God calls me on,” Berg said.