Dozens of palm-sized faces hang from the ceiling in Steve Mainini’s art classroom at Kennedy High School. The ceramic reflections of former students dangle in wire cages and defy gravity as if trapped in some sort of bad dream. But for the hundreds of students that have enrolled in Mainini’s art classes the past eight years, the art teacher with a crew cut is no Freddy Krueger—instead his students and peers regard him as an inspiration.
“Soul Cages,” Mainini called the dangling memories as he walked from desk to desk to monitor his students’ mid-morning work. “Each bar of the cage is shaped into something symbolic to that person. So a part of the student is left in these cages at a time in their life when their dreams are still a reality.”
The reality about Kennedy High’s art teacher is that he is one of five finalists to vie for the county teacher of the year award. The $500 education stipend will be announced on April 20 at this year’s West Contra Costa Public Education Fund luncheon at the Craneway Pavilion. The winner will then advance to state, and possibly, national nominations.
Last year’s candidates were Joshua Hastings of Richmond High School, Maria Saxton of Washington Elementary School, Abigail Sims-Evelyn of LoVonya DeJean Middle School, Tracey Singh-Poole of DeAnza High School, and Todd Groves of both Portola Middle School and El Cerrito High School.
“I have mixed feelings about the attention,” Mainini said about being selected as one of the best teachers in the district. “I set out to be the best art teacher that I could be for the students. But it’s nice to have people say that you do this at the top level.”
Kennedy High special education teacher Salvatore Morabito, 71, saw Mainini’s potential 15 years ago when the then Chico State graduate was working on his teacher credentials. “I saw how caring he was for my students,” Morabito said about how Mainini treated his students with disabilities. “He was just wonderful with them. Now what impresses me is the whole atmosphere of his classroom. His students are all dedicated in their work and they look happy. He respects the students and finds ways to motivate them.”
Mainini said the great thing about Kennedy High students is that their art talent is raw. “They don’t get a lot of art in elementary and middle school,” he said explaining how budget cuts have affected the curriculum. “It’s really neat to be able to take a student of that caliber and direct them. They’re very open to the idea of the things that I’m teaching.”
One lesson Mainini enjoys is allowing students to research the world and letting them identify with a certain culture by creating a “poor man’s Photoshop,” or cultural self-portraits. The only boundary is that their creation must embrace a costume or fashion.
“I like art so it motivates me to come to class,” Angel Ponce said about working on his superimposed Mexican warrior self-portrait. “Sometimes I don’t want to come to school but I’m like, ‘Oh, I got to work on my project.’ Mainini’s class makes you feel like you’re at home. He makes the day better.”
“I hated art before this class,” Marco Guardado said describing his teacher’s classroom style. “Now I like everything about it. The way he teaches, the environment—it never gets boring. He’s always got something new to do.”
Beginning art student Angelica Serrano said she gave up photography so that she could feel like an artist. “He’s an amazing teacher,” she said about Mainini’s teaching techniques. “He makes [art] understandable. I never thought I’d be able to draw art like that. I was like, ‘Wow! I never knew I was that good in art.’”
To showcase his student’s work, the Richmond Art Center will display their creations during the 48th Annual WCCUSD Student Art Show from March 23-April 27. And from May 4-June 1, the center will highlight a body of his own work called Steve Mainini: Working in the WCCUSD- A Retrospective