Visitors walking into Kelli Gehrke’s classroom are often instantly struck by the amount of student work on display — posters, cereal boxes, illustrations, book covers and much more.

That’s just the way Sussex Technical High School’s veteran digital publishing and print design teacher works, with a single-minded focus on supporting her students and bringing out their talents and skills.

As the district’s teacher of the year, her platform is about using art in a therapeutic fashion to help students express themselves and cope with stress and anxiety — an especially important issue while students deal with COVID-19 pressures.

“I plan lessons that teach students graphic design, as well as teach me about the students,” said Gehrke, in her eighth year teaching. “For instance, if I’m teaching them how to design a magazine cover, they need to answer questions about themselves and put themselves on the cover. It seems like a simple premise, but although some of them won’t express themselves through words, they will do that by the art they choose for the cover.”

The process takes a long-term commitment to student development, she said.

“It sometimes takes multiple projects before some students open up, but I usually get a deep understanding of each student as an individual after multiple projects,” Gehrke said. “Sometimes it’s easier to express your feelings by drawing them. And the process of creating art in general also helps with overall anxiety and stress.”

Like all teachers, Gehrke has had to be creative with remote instruction. She spent her summer working on technology logistics and making sure her students had computers able to run specialized industry-standard design software. During live video sessions this fall, she has adapted her teaching to the virtual environment.

“I flip my screen as I show the students new design tools and give them time to mimic the process. Then they flip their screens to show me their designs and that they understood the lesson,” Gehrke explained. “It takes a lot more time than if we were in our traditional setting, but they are still learning and growing as designers every day.”

Under Sussex Tech’s modified remote learning plan, which allows small groups of students on campus two days a week for voluntary instruction or demonstrations, Gehrke recently had a small group of seniors back in her classroom to work hands-on in her computer and design lab. “I’m so excited to see them,” she said.

Gehrke, a resident of Frederica, has been teaching at Sussex Tech since 2012. She has a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts from Robert Morris College, and a master’s degree in career and technical education from Wilmington University.

Her advice for a new student exploring the graphic design field?

“Bring your imagination. Be prepared to learn an exciting new skill that allows you to express yourself artistically.”

To new teachers, she advises, “You have to be flexible, because even the most organized lessons don’t always go as planned. Everything isn’t always going to run perfectly or smoothly, especially when teaching technology, and that’s OK. Get to know your students as individuals, ask them questions about themselves, and always be available if they need someone to listen, and you’ll be fine.”