April Rifenburgh never had aspirations to be an art teacher. She was, in fact, adamant that a career in public education would not be part of her story.

But life has a strange way of taking us in different directions, and that’s how Rifenburgh – the Fine Art Educator Spotlight honoree for the month of April – ended up as the art teacher at Abilene High School where she’s currently in her ninth year.

“Teaching is not my first career and I swore when I was in high school that I would never be an art teacher,” she said. “I worked in retail management for years and one day decided that I needed to do something more; something that mattered. I left the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States to come to Texas and decided that while I was changing my life, I might as well go ahead and get my teaching certification done. I have never regretted that decision, and I truly believe that being an art teacher is the best job ever.”

While teaching art wasn’t Rifenburgh’s passion growing up, art certainly was. As a child in Illinois, she and her siblings had to create their own things to do in a home where they didn’t have much in the way of worldly possessions.

“I have always loved visual arts,” she said. “My family situation growing up was not full of toys and “things.” My siblings and I would draw, make things from mud, flowers, and sticks, and pretty much entertain ourselves with creating.”

And it’s that background that Rifenburgh has leaned on since moving to Abilene. She’s heavily involved in community projects, including creating cards for Meals-on-Wheels at Christmas, organizing an art show at the H-E-B Feast of Sharing, and the recent mural project for the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame. She has frequent showings of her work at the Center for Contemporary Arts and says she has met many artists and community members through the CCA, relationships that have led her to teaching workshops for the CCA, the Grace Museum, and the Creative Arts Council.

“When I first moved to Abilene, it was very important to me that I become involved in a local arts organization,” Rifenburgh said. “I am passionate about practicing my craft so my students can see that I am a working professional as well as a teacher. I believe that AISD has an incredible Fine Arts program and community support for the program. I also believe that there is a huge population of people within our community that might be intimidated by all things fine arts, and that is what I seek to change.

“My family didn’t have the opportunity to take us to art museums or plays, or performances of any kind,” she said. “I want the district art show at the Feast of Sharing to show people within the community that may not get to see art to see the amazing things our kids are doing.”

She also organizes all the art teachers in the district to have students create holiday cards that are delivered with Meals on Wheels because, as she says, “who doesn’t love to get a handmade card from students in the community?”

But, Rifenburgh said, those community opportunities aren’t where she gets her greatest joy as a teacher.

“I love watching students learn new techniques and grow as artists,” she said. “I love seeing a community being built by the students in my classroom and knowing that they include everyone and make them feel loved. I love watching students with differing opinions discuss those and learn about each other and build respect even though they have those different opinions.

“But my greatest joy?” Rifenburgh asked. “I love to see students learning to love themselves through their creative process, learning to question things appropriately, and learning the critical thinking skills that they will use no matter what direction their career leads them. Making art is a great way to cope with the stressors that our students are dealing with every day.”