Jason Paris, recipient of the Medal for Excellence in Secondary Teaching, teaches fine arts at Cherokee High School, a rural northern Oklahoma school serving just over 100 students. A successful playwright with a graduate degree from New York University’s Directing Educational Theater program, the Oklahoma native has found his true calling as an arts teacher and mentor to students in Cherokee.
“I discovered an incredible sense of purpose in building a speech, debate and theater program where one no longer existed,” he said, noting that the program grew from an enrollment of three students when he started to 53 today. Paris also expanded his instruction to include film and media production, studio art and vocal music. In any given hour, one can find his students editing a film for a local business, learning music for a community service project, creating visual arts from Paris’s online art lessons, or reading speech and debate materials.
“Students learn so much more than just techniques from him,” said colleague Michelle Baldwin. “He helps students see how important art is and what place it has in their lives. More importantly, students learn how to see themselves in the world through the art they experience and create.”
Paris has an innate ability to see talent and potential in students and draw it out of them, Baldwin added. He has led students to numerous state championships during his tenure and provided unique opportunities for them to showcase their talents in the community and beyond. Last year, Paris raised funds to take current and former students to Red River, N.M., to perform their show “The One-Act Play that Goes Wrong.”
In a time when young people face increasing rates of depression and apathy, Paris has found that his most critical role right now is to be a caring adult in his students’ lives. “They need guides who show them that, for all the challenges, all the hardships, all the really bad days, life remains full of joy, beauty, wonder and magic.
“Being an effective educator means that everything I do should provide young people with appreciation for all that is good in the world and as many tools as I can provide them to save it,” Paris said. “The best way I know how to achieve that, frankly, is to turn them into artists.”