Art teacher Jeff Knott has been building bridges that transcend social distance by opening the minds of Cheatham Middle School students, uplifting their spirits and engaging their hearts for 25 years.
“I am affirmed in my teaching when I see my students get inspired from what I teach them and they take it upon them to push that skill to the next level,” he said. “Recently, from doing the videos, I have had many former students respond back about the positive influence I had on them. That always warms my heart.”
Because of school closures from COVID-19 precautions, Knott has produced videos for his students — and former students — each weekday morning. The videos are from 10-45 minutes in length, he said. Knott puts the videos on his Facebook page and also his YouTube channel, Mr. Knott’s Art Studio.
“The biggest challenge from teaching through live video is a lack of an audience sitting in front of me,” the Joelton resident said. “Without an audience I can see, it is hard to tell if what I am trying to teach is clearly coming across. Am I going too fast, too slow, are they even enjoying it? All things I can adapt to in the classroom.
“Being ‘live’ is a challenge as well. Even though only a few people are watching it live, if I mess up, or something fails, it is on the video. There’s no redo. But I think it is OK for people to see I make mistakes when I draw, or that my paper airplanes don’t always fly on the first throw.”
Knott has been a teacher at CMS since it opened. He also taught for one year at Sycamore Middle School as a science and social studies teacher. Knott, a North Little Rock, Ark., native who graduated from Arkansas State University with a degree in education with an emphasis in science, also finds some benefits from the video classroom.
“My lessons can reach out further to more people,” he said. “I have a wide variety of people watching and participating — from little children, to parents, to grandmas and grandpas and even former students. Even if they are not participating in the lesson for a school assignment, I hope I am giving them just a few minutes of escape.
“The greatest blessing I have seen with these videos, is when I see there are families that do the lessons together. Those are key moments the kids are going to remember.”
Art, science and paper airplanes
Some of Knott’s favorite assignments for his students are 3-D drawings and photography.
“Photography was new this year,” he said. “I also like STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) projects. The science teacher still lingers in me. That’s alright. Leonardo da Vinci was as much scientist as artist.”
Knott also has a passion for making and flying paper airplanes.
“Paper airplanes feel like magic to me,” he said. “My dad made paper airplanes for me when I was a kid. In high school, I would get to school early and fly planes in the gym. In college, I would fly them out the seventh-floor window of my dorm. I get chills when I see one of my students fly their plane and their eyes light up. I know they have felt the magic. I get the chills when a student feels the magic with any project we do.”
One fellow arts teacher quickly recognized Knott’s impact on his students.
“He genuinely is constantly trying to improve himself as a teacher and as a person,” said Harpeth Middle School music teacher Lindsay Greece, who worked with Knott for 10 years at CMS. “He goes above and beyond with his teaching every day. I have not met a former student who doesn’t claim that he was their favorite teacher. He’s the type of teacher who his former students can call a dear friend once they’re an adult.”
Knott has made enthusiasm for art a family tradition.
“My father was an engineer. My birth mother was a teacher. She passed away of leukemia when I was 10. My stepmother did a lot of art outside her normal job as an assistant,” he said.
Knott and his wife, Christy, are will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary soon. Their son, Alex, 20, is attending the New York Film Academy in Australia.
“He wants to do camera work and be a director of photography for films,” Knott said.
When Knott assigns an art project to himself, it is often a pencil drawing or using aerosol paints to produce a wall mural.
“I really enjoy creating and building something with the materials I have on hand,” he said. “I call it ‘MacGyvering.’ I loved that show ‘MacGyver’ as a kid.”
He said his other hobbies are exercising and riding his motorcycle.
Knott said the video classroom experience has taught him to not take for granted the in-person time he has with his students.
“I have always figured video and online lessons will eventually take over,” he said. “I think videos are great. I learn a lot from videos myself. But, with all these adaptations we have had to make, I still don’t think there is a full substitute for one-on-one interaction. I miss seeing and working with my students very much.”
TALKING ABOUT KNOTT
What some of Cheatham Middle School art teacher Jeff Knott’s colleagues and former students are saying about him:
“He is always trying to reach the student who has the true hidden talent and push them. He would always come talk to me about kids that other people wouldn’t always notice that were having a hard time. He truly has a gift for reaching out to students and pulling creativity out of them.” — longtime Cheatham Middle guidance counselor Tara Canterbury.
“Jeff is an extraordinary working artist whose airbrush work can be seen throughout Cheatham and Davidson Counties. He is inventive, fearless and a humble man of God. He has an open, sharing personality and will answer a question, help solve a problem, to videoing himself daily to benefit his students and friends.” —Liz York Austin, Kindness Advocate for Cheatham County School District.
“I come from a family of artists, but was the black sheep who didn't have the automatic talent my family did. Mr. Knott gave me hope that I could at least learn to be artistic like them. His lessons were slow enough for anyone to keep up and he took the time to help those who were falling behind. I really appreciate what he is doing now with his quarantine lessons since it gives us a chance to live that class all over again.” — Sara Carnahan.
“Mr. Knott was more than a teacher; he was an inspirational leader. He made everyone feel welcome in his class. I didn't even feel like I was at school when I was in his class. He was very kind to me and it was one class I will always remember. Additionally, he pushed students to do their best. He knew there was an artist in all of us.” — Bailey Gower.
“Definitely one of the best most hard-working teachers. He never made me or anyone feel left out. I graduated in 2018, and he will forever be my favorite teacher.” — Julie Anna.
“He taught me a lot of what I apply to what I draw today. He really opened my eyes to what I’m able to do artistically! He was an amazing teacher and he never gave up on me no matter what.” — Alyssa Kelly.
“He would make sure you go to your full potential whether that meant you were frustrated in the process. He’d help you make sure to be as proud of yourself as he is.” — Mikala Lynch.