100 Women, 100 Stories: Renee Ulman

Where do you live? Appleton, WI

What is your profession? I am the Coordinator of Fine Arts for the Appleton Area School District. I basically oversee the art, music, theater and dance curriculum K-12, advocate for strong arts education for all students, help support teachers and work to plan relevant professional development. I am the “district” voice for the arts and it’s importance to all students’ educations.

How did you get into arts education and what was your path leading up to this? I went to Lawrence University here in Appleton with the intent of majoring in political science and philosophy in the hopes of going into law school. During the summer after my freshmen year, I took a close look at what my interests and passions were and made the decision to go into art education. My mom taught 5th grade for 35 years and was a big influence in to my “new” career choice. I started teaching art in 1995 at the high school level and I never looked back. I loved teaching art and felt like it was my calling.

I taught high school art, mostly intro and drawing and paintings classes for about 10 years at Appleton North High School (about 1800 students) when I was approached by one of my administrators to be part of a small team that was exploring the idea of starting a smaller learning community. I felt the need to show students the connections between all of their courses, design, and the “real world” and was one of the founding members of the Appleton Career Academy, a small public charter school inside of Appleton North. The Appleton Career Academy focused on interdisciplinary learning and leadership skills-the transferrable skills that all students will need to be successful no matter what they want to do with their lives. In a nutshell those are Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Citizenship. For 10 years I not only taught at the ACA but was the school’s coordinator. It completely changed the way I looked at education and made me realize how much I liked to help teachers do what is best for students.

Two years ago, the Fine Arts Coordinator for our school district retired and I was approached by the district’s leadership team to apply. I spent one year in transition, still coordinating the Appleton Career Academy while learning my new role as fine arts coordinator. At the end of last school year, I was asked to go full time at coordinator and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to create change at the district level.

What did you study in school? I majored in Studio Art. I chose this major because of my passion for art and my love of it-it took me a little while to admit that is what I wanted to do (probably because of fear and the belief that others wouldn’t look favorably on my choice). I now believe and try to counsel my own children as well as high school students (when I taught) that you need to pick something that is right for you, not what you think others want you to do.

Has anyone been a mentor to you? What role did they play and how do you feel about mentorship now? My principal at the Appleton Career Academy was my mentor when I was the coordinator of that school. I learned a lot about the processes administrators used as well as how to look at things from their point of view (bigger picture). In my new role, there are a couple female assistant superintendents who I look up to, ask questions of, and just watch and learn from.

What’s the hardest thing that you’ve had to deal with in your career so far?Having to make a hiring decision that went against a good teacher friend of mine. That is when I realized how being an administrator can be challenging on a personal level, especially when you have to continue to work with people you were very close to as a teacher.

What has been a really rewarding moment in your career? Being asked to go full time as the Fine Arts Coordinator. This position was cut to part time years ago and it was very affirming to me when it was increased. It made me realize that I can create change and I need to work even harder to make sure that the importance of art education is never lost.

What do you want to accomplish in your lifetime? I have two daughters (ages 11 and 14) so my main goal is to raise two strong, independent, and compassionate women. I want them to be confident enough to do what they want, realize that their needs are important, and give back to their communities.

Professionally, I want to continue to show others how the arts are vital for ALL students and have them be a priority in our school district.

What’s something you want young woman to remember when thinking about their future? Ask a lot of questions and then LISTEN. If people feel you are truly listening to them, they will be more likely to listen to you and work with you.

What’s one thing you want to try to make an impact on in your lifetime? Arts education and students empathy/compassion. We need the arts more than ever right now and they will help bring people together in understanding and create change for the better. I had a teacher who the day after the election said to me “ I am only doing projects that will make my students better people” –that is the impact I hope to make.

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