AGAWAM — It all began for Debora “Deb” Florek when she was a child who liked to draw and who often pretended to be a teacher. Those two things ultimately drew her into a 32-year career teaching art to Agawam students.
Florek, who will retire this week, began her career at Agawam Junior High School in 1990. For the past 20 years, she’s helped students at Agawam High School (AHS) hone their artistic skills. Some have gone on to become art teachers themselves, others have used their talents in other careers and some have made art a favorite pastime in their lives.
“Art has endless possibilities in which to grow and challenge yourself and your students,” said Florek. “All students want to learn and create. Many are successful working artists in a range of fields.”
She said that during her more than three decades of teaching, some things have changed in the classroom.
“When I was at the junior high school, the biggest issue was if a student was chewing gum or not. Now, teachers have cell phones to compete with. Students having their cell phones with them has become a huge problem.”
On the plus side, she never wavered in her quest to provide students with more in-depth learning in classes such as Drawing and Painting II, Sculpture II, National Art Honors I, II and Digital Photography II.
“It’s important to have these classes to achieve learning/creating on a higher level. Additionally, technology has improved in our grading programs and sending/sharing art virtually.”
However, many of same challenges Florek faced as a new teacher still exist. She said although teachers are experts in their fields, they often are required to do things outside their area of expertise.
“We’re not guidance counselors, but we listen to students, cheer them on, give them incentive to achieve, share their joys and sorrows, guide them to make wise choices and help with their social-emotional care,” she explained.
Florek said teachers are always ensuring that students are welcome, valued and prepared to learn, but are continually asked to do more and more without being paid more.
Still, she had a hard time when it came time to retire. “I still love what I do. I always tell students to find a job you love — then it’s not ‘work,’ per se. But I’m at the right age — 61 — so it was time to retire.”
She said some of her best memories as a teacher are watching students become talented artists who grow into “amazing” adults.
“I will miss seeing how students grew into adults before us — freshman today, graduates tomorrow.”
Florek grew up in Southwick, but now lives in Agawam. She said her family is excited about her retirement.
“My husband and I hope to travel and spend more time with our two grandchildren,” she said. “I also hope to have time to create my own art projects.”
She said AHS staff are “hard working and connect very well” with students.
Florek said Rebecca Osborn, an art teacher at the Doering School, is moving to the high school to fill her position, and called her “a great addition” to the high school.
Florek said among her proudest moments at AHS has been working with her visual arts colleagues, Amber Waters and Dianna DeCaro. They praised Florek not only for her dedication to students, but also for helping them throughout their AHS careers.
Waters, who serves as chair of the visual arts department, said Florek committed endless hours to the high school’s visual arts program. “She worked to develop classes and programs that highlighted numerous creative opportunities for students — from beginners to advanced skill levels. Her calm demeanor was a welcome and inviting presence as students entered her room.”
Waters added that Florek has always encouraged students to “do more” and push themselves to reach their full potential and beyond: “Deb will be missed at AHS. She has made such a positive impact on the department, her students, and, most importantly, me as an art educator. She is the type of teacher we all strive to be.”
DeCaro said Florek has a welcoming way about her and always made time for students and colleagues.
“She’s known for her kindness and thoughtfulness,” DeCaro said. “Deb welcomed me not only when I began teaching English across the hall from her, but also when I became a member of the visual arts department in 2012.”
For eight years, DeCaro and Florek shared a classroom. DeCaro recalls that her colleague “was always such a great sport” about sharing what was originally just Florek’s space.
“We could laugh together about anything and would sometimes share clips from comedians when we needed a pick-me-up,” DeCaro said. “She was in my life through the birth of both my daughters and lent an ear and advice when I needed it — both as a new art teacher and a new mother.”
DeCaro said she has learned much from Florek on many levels and in different capacities, “I will miss her dearly. I hope she gets to travel and do things that bring her great joy in retirement.”
She also shared the last stanza of a poem she wrote for Florek’s retirement that summed up how she and her colleagues feel about Florek leaving: “And we’ll cherish all our sweet memories of the one and only Flo!”