Two-time alum Nathan Kukla has been named Michigan Art Educator of the Year by the Michigan Art Education Association (MAEA). Now in his 25th year of teaching in a K-12 setting, Kukla believes his ability to foster a sense of belonging in the classroom has been the main ingredient to his success.
“When students feel comfortable, they feel safe in exploring their creativity,” he said. “I focus on getting them past the point of fearing making mistakes – it’s okay to make mistakes. Learning from our mistakes is part of the learning process.”
After spending 24 years at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Michigan, where he helped build an acclaimed arts program, Kukla began a new chapter at nearby Northview High School in the 2023-24 academic year. From advanced placement art to fashion design to graphic design and photography, his days cover a wide range of arts, which grant him the opportunity to navigate students’ creative expression in various ways.
“I try to help students become more creative and to get past their fears,” he said. “When you’re being creative, you’re putting a piece of yourself out there in the world, and that can be uncomfortable.”
Aside from his classroom duties, Kukla has been a constant advocate of the arts.
For 20 years, he worked with the National Arts Honors Society at West Ottawa High School and has served as a regional liaison between the Grand Rapids and Lake Shore for the Michigan Art Education Association, which advises K-12 curriculum for the state.
Kukla, who comes from a long line of educators, was left speechless upon learning of the award. In April 2024, he will attend the NAEA National Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he will not only be recognized, but placed in the running to receive the Western Region High School Art Teacher of the Year Award.
“Knowing that alums like Nathan are delivering on the college’s mission and have been for 25 years brings me great joy,” said Dean and MSU Research Foundation Professor Jerlando F. L. Jackson. “His dedication to art education and fostering creativity not only exemplifies the values we instill in our students but also underscores the transformative impact that Spartans have on their communities.”
Kukla fondly recalls faculty members Jerry Catania, Charlie Steele and Laura Cloud teaching him invaluable lessons during his undergraduate years. To this day, he feels a sense of belonging and comfort when he visits his alma mater.
“MSU has always felt like home,” he said. “Since the first time I stepped foot on campus, I felt like I belonged and was a part of something bigger.”