Alumnus Matt Cockrell: Thinking outside the box to teach art

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Matt Cockrell was named the 2019 Secondary Level Art Educator of The Year Award by the Kentucky Art Education Association. 
Matt Cockrell was named the 2019 Secondary Level Art Educator of The Year Award by the Kentucky Art Education Association. 

Matt Cockrell (Class of 2009) didn’t take the traditional path to becoming a teacher. So, it’s easy to understand why he doesn’t take a conventional approach to teaching art.   

During middle and high school, Cockrell was frequently the target of bullies. That, combined with his boredom with the traditional teaching methods his teachers used, caused him to struggle academically.   

“The classes where I thrived the most were the hands-on classes, such as Woodshop and Vocational Agriculture,” he said. “While I enjoyed art class, it was not that exciting, even though it did offer me a chance to be somewhat creative. I also found the freedom to be creative as a member of our school’s golf team.”  

Cockrell said he uses his own high school experiences to relate to his students. He said it’s vital for him to show students that they can still be successful despite the difficulties they may be facing.   

“Teaching art allows me to share my own personal story about the struggles I had in school, growing up, and how students who are currently struggling at school are not so different from how I was. Sharing my success story and giving students this reality check allows them to see the possibilities,” he said.  

After graduating high school in 1998, Cockrell earned an Associate in Arts in Business from the Golf Academy of America and spent the next few years traveling around South Carolina, Indiana and Virginia, trying to establish a career as a golf club professional. When that didn’t pan out, he moved in with his brother, Sean Cockrell (Class of 2003) and his sister-in-law, both teachers. Cockrell said they set him on the path to becoming a teacher.   

Cockrell teaches his students to use their sense of touch rather than their eyes.
Cockrell teaches his students to use their sense of touch rather than their eyes to create ceramics by throwing pots in class while wearing a blindfold. 

“One evening at dinner I overheard my brother and sister-in-law talking about their school days. She is a special education teacher and he is an art teacher,” Cockrell said. “I asked if I could sit in on my brother’s class one day. I saw my brother changing his students’ lives by making art class fun and being real with them. I wanted to make art class the reason why students come to school.”  

The following week, at age 25, Cockrell enrolled in the art program at Morehead State. Working 12-hour shifts at a factory three nights a week, taking classes at the main campus and MSU at Mt. Sterling by day and sleeping in his Jeep between classes, Cockrell earned his bachelor’s degree in art in 2009.    

Cockrell said not only were his professors supportive of him as a student; he said they influenced the way he teaches to this day.   

“Through all the ups and downs as a student at Morehead State University, what I did find comforting was knowing that the staff and all of my professors had my back. Their words and conversations with me were open, honest, heartwarming and rejuvenating,” Cockrell said. “I have taken these same qualities and applied them to everything I do on a daily basis. My teaching style would not be where it is today without having Morehead State University instill in me a love for learning and that all things, all subjects and all contents harmoniously fit together.”    

While Cockrell said he likes to mix things up in his classes to keep things interesting, one project he has done consistently is an art calendar fundraiser. The calendar features student artwork, and the funds raised go back into purchasing materials and equipment for the art program. Cockrell started the program at his first teaching job at a K-12 school and has continued the project for the six years he’s been at his current school. In that time, the project has raised more than $10,000, which has been used to purchase pottery wheels, slab rollers, clay and other ceramics supplies for the school. He said making the students an active part of the fundraising process gets them invested in the program.   

Cockrell often throws pots in class with his feet to demonstrate to students how creating art involves using more than the eyes.  
Cockrell often throws pots in class with his feet to demonstrate to students how creating art involves using more than the eyes.  

“It’s important for me to not just build a first-class art program. It’s also important for me to involve my students in the process that will get us there because students take ownership of our art program and our school.”   

Cockrell has an exciting way to engage his students when teaching them how to “throw” ceramic pieces.   

“I am also known for making pottery, in class, with my feet and while being blindfolded. Once students see this, they instantly want to try it,” he said. “I enjoy teaching art because it allows me to reach out to those students who struggle on multiple levels of educational learning. Students need to see that through art, anything is possible and can be accomplished.”  

After graduating from MSU, Cockrell went on to earn a master’s degree in art education from Georgetown College in 2011 and a Rank I at Campbellsville University in 2021. Cockrell started his teaching career at a small, independent K-12 school, and he is currently an art teacher at Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville. In 2019, Cockrell received the Secondary Level Art Educator of The Year Award from the Kentucky Art Education Association.    

For the past ten years while working at two different schools, Cockrell has raised funds for art programs by selling calendars featuring student artwork.
For the past ten years while working at two different schools, Cockrell has raised funds for art programs by selling calendars featuring student artwork. At his current school, Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, the calendars have raised more than $10,000 to supplement the art program.  

“Being recognized as the top secondary art teacher in the entire state of Kentucky has allowed me to advocate even more for art in schools and to mentor those new and veteran art teachers who are looking for encouragement and ways to grow themselves and their classrooms,” he said.   

For more information about MSU’s art programs, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/art.