Focus on Carlsbad Summer | Teacher Feature: Elijah Nieto


Art Instructor | Carlsbad High School
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from Eastern New Mexico University

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

What are your hobbies and interests outside of teaching?

I am a very laid-back individual, embedded with the drive of the forever inner child. This duality permits me to be very mutable. As an artist, this allows me to always look for new and intriguing ways to entice or confound my viewers. I see nature as a teacher because, if you allow it to, Mother Earth can teach you so much. The desert, being my home, is very misunderstood as a pile of sand and rocks where nothing grows. Yet as experience elevates me, nature has shown me that, in the desert, one survives by being patient, persistent, resourceful, and by understanding the secrets of beauty and transfiguration.

Tell us about your background and your role(s) in the school system.

I’m a Carlsbad local, born in 1987, and I graduated from CHS in 2006. I graduated from ENMU with a BFA in 2011 and started working at Carlsbad High School in the spring of 2016 as a full-time art instructor. This is when I learned that teaching is not easy and hormonal adolescence does nothing but increase the very steep learning curve. As far as roles go, there are several hats to try on, and some must be put on simultaneously depending on the situation. So, first and foremost, I’m an art instructor, the Head of the Fine Arts Department, the Fine Arts PLC facilitator, the PBIS lead collaborator, the AP Art Instructor, and finally my favorite hat, the National Art Honor Society chapter sponsor.

Have you received any awards?

Yes, it’s been such a blessing and a sign of affirmation. I received Teacher of the Year in 2017, recognition of being an outstanding teacher in 2017 by the Mayor of Carlsbad, character counts community award 2017, Employee of the Month 2019, 2019 class of 40 under 40, Employee of the Year 2018-2019, and this past October I received High school Art Teacher of the Year from the New Mexico Art Education Association. I really do believe that God has been guiding me the whole way, especially because I never wanted to be a teacher.

How have you adjusted your teaching philosophies in your own experience?

Specifically because I am still very new to this world of teaching, I feel as if my philosophy is always moving, shifting, and changing. This, I believe, is how it should be because we, as people, are also doing this type of thing. There is something that I hope to achieve with every student that walks through my door… the ability to see and perceive the world around them as they step into their own and follow their heart.

Art is a very powerful tool.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Seeing myself grow and change as much as I help them grow and change. It’s something that I didn’t realize would happen, but it is truly humbling.

Do you have a motto or saying that you live by?

I have a few: “Think smarter, not harder,” “never say you can’t,” and “drive fast and take chances.” The latter is always followed up by telling them I don’t mean in a literal sense, and if they must take it that way there is a highway for that.

What is the best piece of advice you’d give someone who wants to be a teacher?

Make sure that you love people, especially love helping people. No matter how old they are, at the end of the day, they are people like you and me that go through all kinds of life — good and bad. And most importantly, never forget that as a teacher you are a forever student!

Please discuss any special projects you’ve done in the community.

In my first year of teaching, Mary Garwood, who worked for Carlsbad’s parks department, came to me with a desire to help enrich our community by creating some artwork in the newly remodeled pavilion bathrooms down by the river. It took me a year to get back to her because I had just started teaching and I didn’t have any kind of art club or resources. Along with one of my students, Emma Norman, we created New Mexico/Carlsbad themed ideas to paint all over the stalls to help prevent obscene bathroom graffiti and help the students sow back into their community. This project has been the forerunner in expanding the art program and its relationship with the community. Since then, we have been involved with Carlsbad Main Street, Carlsbad Creative Arts Council, and Keep Carlsbad Beautiful in numerous and various ways.

Please discuss the impact art has on social behaviors.

Art is a very powerful tool. There is no question that art has an impact on social behaviors. I have experienced this first hand. With an advanced art class, I created a social justice project where the students were to pick issues that are currently being faced in our country (ie: abortion, racism, homelessness, pollution, suicide). The students chose their topics and researched both sides and created wheat paste graffiti murals. One particular mural, created by a young female student about her personal experience with racism, triggered an issue leading to the subject of censorship. In the end, this incident led to an infringement upon my students’ freedom of speech. While an order to immediately power wash and remove the murals destroyed my kids on the inside, it also resulted in people losing their jobs and transferring out of the district. This episode transformed the school. In hindsight, a simple conversation about what the art was about could have defused the entire situation.

Interview originally published in Focus on Carlsbad 2020 Summer edition.

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