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Crista Terrizzi: Art Teacher

At the Promise Academy® II spring art show, Crista Terrizzi’s students showcased aboriginal bark paintings, handmade “geodes,” kindergarten self-portraits, a Keith Haring tribute and even two five-foot-long “life-like” dragon sculptures. But for Terrizzi, the meaningful part about the artwork is the conversations her students had while creating it.

“The discussions that happen after looking at work like Keith Haring – I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Terrizzi said. “The level of emotional intelligence from our kids is outstanding.”

Crista Terrizzi grew up in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She didn’t know that she was artistic until a middle school art teacher urged her mother to encourage her. Terrizzi had been a good student until she began to act out in high school, but she found comfort in expressing herself creatively.

“I was trying to be something that wasn’t me,” Terrizzi said. “I never had anyone tell me that I didn’t have to do that until I had my art teachers.”

Terrizzi studied fine arts as an undergrad, but had no interest in pursuing a teaching career until she took a required course in education equity. Her professor encouraged her to travel to Haiti and work in a school in Port-Au-Prince. After she did, Terrizzi became passionate about education and became a kindergarten teacher in a charter school in New York City. She came to Promise Academy® after feeling stifled and limited in her first school.

“I really believe in the mission. [HCZ] is tackling all the different aspects of the community and what we can improve in the lives of people in Harlem – and not just in education,” Terrizzi said.

Crista Terrizzi centers her teaching philosophy around caring for the whole child, especially their mental wellness. In her first year at Promise, Terrizzi met a third-grader who got into trouble often. They developed a friendship. Much like how Terrizzi relied on her art teachers when she was distressed as a child, this student found comfort in speaking to her or working on art projects. Terrizzi’s class was the first art class the student ever had, and his behavior drastically improved after he was able to express himself.

“I’ve experienced the long-term damage of not being true to who you are as a child,” Terrizzi said. “I want these kids to be more successful than I was in my emotional and social development.”

Terrizzi’s students learn about art from around the world — from Buddhist sand mandalas to Keith Haring’s mural a few blocks away from the school. She’s proud of her meticulously designed classroom — which includes workstations named after Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso; spaces for self-reflection, and even an art-themed library for those who finish their assignments early.  At the end of her classes, wet paintings are neatly layered in the drying rack, the rainbow of acrylic paint in squeeze tubes is refreshed, and often a student leaves with one last, burning question for Ms. Terrizzi: “Can we have art class one more time in the week?”

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