Peggy Wier Leonard is a townie who grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Mack, Forsythe, and Pioneer.
She attended Eastern Michigan University with the idea of being an elementary classroom teacher with a minor in art. As luck would have it, her advisor was a professor in the art school who encouraged her to become an art teacher. It was a great suggestion as she couldn’t imagine teaching anything but art.
Leonard earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Eastern Michigan University and a master’s degree in art therapy from Wayne State University.
After graduation, Leonard took a job with the Oxford Area Schools teaching middle school and high school art. She says that until a few months ago, very few people knew where Oxford, Michigan was. “But it is a great school system and was a wonderful place to start my career,” she says.
When her oldest son was two, and after 10 years of teaching, she decided to leave Oxford. She and her husband moved back to Ann Arbor, and she started her own art business, Paintings by Peg, traveling and selling her artwork around the state.
In 1998, she decided it was time to return to teaching. Leonard has a minor in math so she was hired by the AAPS to teach one math class and one art class at Scarlett Middle School. She recalls that it was a perfect job at two hours a day, as it allowed her time to be at the sporting events of all three of her boys.
Eventually, she returned to full-time teaching, with Lakewood Elementary being her “home” school. This is her twentieth year of teaching at Lakewood, and she also teaches Monday and Wednesday afternoons at Ann Arbor Open.
AAPS Director of Fine Arts Robin Bailey applauds Leonard’s work at AAPS.
“She’s taken on quite a leadership role in the art department and the community in building partnerships for our K-12 students to display their art,” says Bailey.
Lakewood Principal Airess Stewart says she is grateful for Leonard’s contribution to the school community, adding: “Mrs. Leonard is dedicated to supporting and lifting the artistic talents of all our students.”
And A2 Open Principal Karen Siegel notes: “Peggy is a consummate professional who is dedicated to making a meaningful, beautiful experience for our young artists.”
Leonard lives in Ann Arbor with her dog, Star. Sadly, her husband of 30 years, Jerry, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2014. Their three sons are JR Leonard, a physical education teacher at Burns Park Elementary Schools; Patrick Leonard, a grant writer in Oakland, California; and Tyler, who works for Torrent Consulting. All are married. Leonard also has four grandsons, two of whom were born in the past few months. Her brother, Ed Wier, is a local architect.
In addition to teaching art, she has a passion for public art and currently serves on the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission. When she’s not hanging out with her family she enjoys nature, gardening, swimming, and all things creative.
Were you a standout art student as a child attending Ann Arbor Public Schools?
I always loved art and thought of myself as a “star” student. I remember having artwork in art shows and going to those shows with my parents. My parents were always so proud and supportive of my art. I was a good student in school and received a Michigan Competitive Scholarship to attend college.
When did you know you wanted to become an art teacher, and why?
I have always loved art and took as many art classes as I could in middle school and high school. I guess I never thought of myself as a good enough artist to be a teacher. The suggestion from my college professor really made an impact on me. I love teaching art and my work has truly brought me joy. When I returned to Ann Arbor to teach, two of my former art teachers, Phyllis Swonk and Joan Wenk became my mentors, art colleagues, and friends.
When you recall your first year of teaching, what memories stand out?
That was a long time ago, but Oxford was a growing district at the time, so I remember working with a lot of young staff. We were all hired around the same time and did many things together outside of school. Although most have retired, I still stay in touch with many of my colleagues from my “Oxford days”.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher?
I would say be patient with yourself. Ask lots of questions and listen. There’s that saying: “Take your job seriously, but not yourself.” Don’t let your ego get too wrapped up in your job. It’s a hard job and some days will be better than others. Taking a step back and laughing or smiling at something that happened during the day is always a good thing.
What’s the most innovative idea you’ve started in your classroom?
When the year started I wanted to return to a “normal” year of teaching. That has not been the case, but it’s proven to be a very interesting and rewarding year. I’ve had great support from my interim principal, Airess Stewart, and she has supported me in some new endeavors at Lakewood.
Each week, in her weekly newsletter to parents, we highlight artwork that a certain grade has completed. I basically take a picture of a particular bulletin board and give the details of the project. Since parents haven’t been able to come into school, they love seeing the art their kids are making. Another project was to start a Lakewood Student Art Gallery. I realized during the pandemic that many students enjoyed making art at home. They would bring their art to school to show me and Airess and I collaborated on space for this extra work to be displayed. It’s open to grades Y5 – 5th and the only stipulation is that the art cannot be made during our class time. Since our school is Responsive Classroom, students can work on art in their classroom during quiet time or work on it at home. Students turn the work in to me and I mount it and display it for the school to view. It’s been very popular. We have filled one bulletin board space and are now working on another space. I love seeing the variety in the work and the students varied interests and abilities.
What’s the best compliment anyone could give you?
“Her computer skills have come a long way!”
When we all moved to virtual teaching it was such a struggle. Imagine feeling confident in your teaching skills and then having to shift to a whole new way of teaching after 30 years. I was so lost I didn’t even know where to begin to ask for help. Many veteran teachers retired during this time and the only reason I didn’t retire was because of my former student teacher, colleague, and friend, Kristina Ruthven. Kristina teaches art at Angell and Abbot. Every Wednesday during that Covid fall, she would come to my house and load my lessons. We would sit outside on my patio as we were both worried about spreading Covid. The tech was overwhelming but the friendship and dinner delivery were delightful.
Eventually, I learned, and when the weather became too cold to sit outside Kristina made me a “cheat sheet.” I am indebted to her. However, she tells the story of paying it back to me as I was her supervising teacher and helped her get her job in Ann Arbor. We’ve become great friends over our tech bonding and I will be forever grateful. I also have to give a shout-out to my art colleagues and my elementary art Teaching Learning Networks (TLN) who always supported me and made me feel valued. Thank you!!
What’s the happiest part of your day?
The happiest part of my day is working with my students. I love discovering projects that will engage them, seeing them connected to their work, and observing how happy and engaged they are. I do believe that art is one of the tools that help students become their best selves: creative, curious, caring, and confident.
What’s unique about working at Lakewood?
I love that Lakewood is a smaller school, yet with a very diverse population.
The staff is amazing and a combination of veteran teachers along with new hires. All of them are “exceptional teachers” and worthy of recognition. Lakewood is a great work environment and a place that feels like my second home.
And what do you love about your two afternoons each week at A2 Open?
I enjoy the creativity of my students at Open. The teachers, staff and parents have been incredibly supportive and friendly. When I started in the fall, I was teaching “Art on a Cart.” It was the first time in my career that I had taught art that way. I had to be incredibly organized, but as a veteran teacher I had many adaptable project ideas. The kindergarten teachers, Tyra, Diane and Edie and the Y5 teacher, Dairia were so welcoming to me, but I felt for them giving up their space during their planning time. Deb Ehnis, the other art teacher at Open, and the office staff searched for a space for me to teach. They were successful and I now have my own classroom. Deb Ehnis has been so helpful in providing supplies and giving me support. It’s been many years since I walked the hallways of Mack School (Open School at Mack) so it’s been both a nostalgic and rewarding experience for me.
What’s most exciting in your life right now?
What’s most exciting right now is that we are near the end of this crazy school year. I’m grateful for the effort my students have put forth and the wonderful work they’ve created. I’m excited to relax, unwind, catch up with friends, enjoy time with my family and extended family and enjoy my four wonderful grandsons!