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Embracing the Art of Teaching: Elena Russ Inspires Students at Lyons Elementary

A female fifth grader is on the left sitting at a tall table in art class while her teacher, Mrs. Russ, is leaning over the table next to her. They are both holding onto a cardboard paper towel tube that is standing up on the table, while the student tapes it.

Lyons Elementary Art Teacher, Elena Russ, has a deep-rooted passion for teaching and art. Her mother, a teacher for more than 40 years, influenced her journey into the field of education. Despite not intending to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Russ found herself drawn to the teaching profession.

Growing up in a village in the former Soviet Union, Russ witnessed her mother’s dedication to her students. She recalls countless late nights spent grading papers and a constant stream of children seeking her mother’s guidance and support. “She tutored them for free, or for a jug of sour cream or milk, just because she loved them and wanted them to succeed,” shared Russ. “Seeing all of that, I playfully mentioned that pursuing a career as a teacher was not in my plans. Many years later, when my beloved mom called and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I replied, ‘Teaching!'”

Russ developed a passion for art at an early age. “For as long as I can remember, I was drawing,” she shared. “My mom would leave me with colored pencils and papers, and I would draw for long periods of time.” As an adult, she continues to embrace opportunities to learn and explore new art mediums. “I like to dive into whatever I am doing, whether it’s painting, drawing, clay, darkroom photography, fiber, or collage. I love the challenge and the journey.”

After graduating from a visual arts high school, Russ furthered her education at the College of Visual Arts “A. Plamadeala” in the Republic of Moldova, specializing in visual arts and pedagogy. She started her career in education as a teacher in Moldova public schools and as a missionary at an orphanage. Upon relocating to the United States, she studied visual arts at Front Range Community College and completed the Education and Leadership Program at Colorado State University, earning a master’s degree. Russ was a substitute teacher in St. Vrain Valley Schools before joining the team at Lyons Elementary as the school’s art teacher, where she’s worked for the past seven years.

Embracing the belief that “if you love what you do, you will never ‘work’ a day in your life,” Russ approaches her role with a deep sense of fulfillment. She likens the dynamic in her classroom to a “beautiful dance” or a “perfect storm,” drawing parallels to Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “My students are like individual blotches of paint, each individually simple and vibrant in color, coming together to create a perfect storm of creativity.”

Art teacher Mrs. Russ is standing at the end of a tall table with four female 5th grade students sitting at it. The student closest to her is holding onto a cardboard paper towel tube that is resting vertically on the desk. She is applying masking tape to the top. Mrs. Russ is holding the masking tape roll and tearing off a piece for her. Another student sitting next to her is watching.

A phrase that students regularly hear from Russ is, “If it doesn’t challenge you, you’re not learning.” This sentiment encapsulates her approach to teaching, instilling not just artistic skills but resilience, growth, and self-expression in her students. “My goal is to inspire my students. I start my art units with inspiration, giving them a vision, a purpose, and a joy,” said Russ. “I want my classroom to be a safe place that they enjoy and look forward to coming to, where everyone is respectful, and where they’re challenged to think, learn, grow, and try.” 

In Russ’s classes, students have learned about more than just art. They’ve grasped the significance of self-expression and the idea that effort is more important than perfection. “I like that even if you’re not the best at art, Mrs. Russ makes you feel really good about it and makes you feel like you can do anything,” said fifth-grader Lumin Plaster. Russ’s students embody her philosophy, illustrating her belief that everyone has the potential for creativity and personal development. “She’ll always help you if you need help and if your artwork doesn’t look the best, she still loves it and she doesn’t care if it’s perfect,” shared fifth-grader Carys Ballagh. “She just wants you to work hard and try.” 

Lyons Elementary School