Art of Teaching: Heather Fountain, Ed.M.’97By Rachael Apfel
Young children often fantasize about what they will be when they grow up, and Heather Fountain, Ed.M.’97, was no different. However, while her classmates may have dreamed of being astronauts, doctors, zookeepers, or deep-sea divers, Fountain’s dream was simple — she wanted to teach.
“I have known from an early age that teaching was my gift,” Fountain says. “For as long as I can remember I have loved the challenge of finding ways to help others connect to learning.”
Now, years later, Fountain has a well-established career as an arts educator, teaching art education courses to graduate and undergraduate students — as well as to special education and elementary education students — at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where she serves as the chair of the undergraduate art education program.
“I do so many different things, but I think a good summary of the work I do is that I help current and future educators learn strategies to help reach and teach all students in and through the arts,” Fountain says. “Art is a powerful tool to help reach all types of learners, and, at the core, everything I do is about social justice and ensuring that all students, no matter who they are or where they are from, have access to both the arts and dynamic educators that see students for their potential.”
Fountain says that her “greatest inspiration” for the work she does today came from the youth, families, and adults with disabilities at camp Oceanwood in Maine where she started working when she was 15. It was here that she recalls first seeing the power that art had to “open doors to understanding and connection for those who have been barred from that opportunity, whether due to limitation of access, understanding, or communication.”
Fountain favors a one-on-one style of teaching, allowing students to meet and work with those with disabilities first-hand. She also pairs art education pre-service teachers and local middle school students with community volunteers that have various disabilities, and together these two groups work in teams to design innovative products intended to make life more accessible for a person with a disability.
In 2012, Fountain was honored by the Pennsylvania Art Education Association (PAEA) with the Special Needs Art Educator of the Year award. “I do not think that I would have made it this far in my pursuit for higher education without Dr. Fountain,” Kutztown University student Misty Young said at the time. “She kept me going when I thought that giving up was my only option. She made me believe in myself and … I now use my disabilities to help others.”
Although honored to have been chosen to receive the PAEA award, Fountain almost declined to accept on account of its title. “I take issue with the term ‘special needs,’” she says. “‘Special’ has taken on a negative connotation in relation to those with disabilities as it perpetuates the outmoded idea that individuals with disabilities are different, less than, or ‘other.’” However, she says that after “much consideration,” she concluded that she would have a better chance of promoting change from on the inside.
Fountain’s work was further honored at the beginning of this year by the National Art Education Association (NAEA) with the Council for Exceptional Children, VSA Peter J. Geisser Special Needs Art Educator Award, which is given to recognize excellence in scholarship, community, service, professional leadership, teaching, and impact on individuals with disabilities.
“It is a wonderful honor to be recognized at both the state and national levels for my work,” she says. “It is rare for someone to be recognized nationally with an award of this magnitude so soon after being granted tenure.”
Moving forward, Fountain says she is considering writing a book centered on the use of art to differentiate literature instruction, a topic of renewed interest to her due to the focus on literacy in the new Common Core standards.
“I taught literacy through art in my own classroom and also helped elementary school teachers use art to differentiate literature instruction for years now,” she says. “I have found that this is a strong way to reach students who otherwise might not connect with learning goals through other methods.”