Art Teacher Ailysh Cooper, ’18, Wins Illinois State Board of Ed Service Award
By Eva Richards

ailysh-cooper-imageAilysh Cooper, '18, strives to create an environment where students have choice and personal voice in their artwork.

Art education alumna Ailysh Cooper, ’18, “really, really likes NIU.” 

In fact, it’s easy to see that her affection for her alma mater has impacted many areas of her life in a positive way. 

Her parents and brother—also Huskies—taught her the value of the NIU community early on. As a child, Cooper could never get enough of art, and she blossomed at NIU’s “Summer in the Arts” visual arts camp each year of high school, before deciding to pursue her own art education degree there. She met her husband on campus, and when the two got married a few years back, they invited NIU’s lovable, four-legged mascot Mission to the big event. Mission joined them at the reception, which was held at NIU’s Naperville campus

“My time at NIU as an undergraduate was great,” Cooper said. “NIU prepared me for my career by challenging me and pushing me to do my best. NIU has a culture of making sure students are involved and active participants in the community and that rubbed off on me going into my career! I want to do everything. The orientation office, in particular, helped me with that.”

Cooper enjoyed the Art and Design Education Program at NIU so much that she has begun taking classes on campus again, pursuing her master’s degree in art and design education. 

“I’m currently taking classes and learning so much that I can bring back to my classroom,” she said.

The skills and resources Cooper continues to learn at NIU have launched her, in just four years, to the top of her profession. As an art teacher at Oak Lawn Community High School, she was recently awarded the Meritorious Service Award for Early Career Educator from the Illinois State Board of Education, a prestigious honor for the most dedicated instructors who are just beginning their teaching careers.

“After graduating from NIU, I began at Oak Lawn Community High School (OLCHS), and I’ve been here for my whole career. This year, I’ve taught drawing, painting, introductory classes, photography, and comics,” she said. “I try to include the entire artistic process in student learning because art is a great vehicle for students to learn how to be their best selves.”

It is important to Cooper that students learn how to problem-solve and persevere before they leave high school, and they often make those connections in art. 

“In the wake of the pandemic, a lot of students also have things to say through art, and it’s important to me that they have a safe and empowering environment for that,” she said. “I strive to create an environment where that can happen by making sure students have choice and personal voice in their artwork. The fulfilling part of this job is watching students grow into self-sufficient and confident learners who are willing to try new things and make change.”


Cooper's painting "A College Still Life."

At OLCHS, Cooper also sponsors the Stitching Spartans—the school’s knit and crochet club—the National Art Honor Society, and she helps the theater program by being a crew director. Outside of her school role, Cooper is part of the NIU art camp where she learned so much growing up each summer. She has an art education YouTube channel, called Ms. Cooper’s Art Class, and is on the Illinois Art Education Association Board as the graphics coordinator and the Youth Art Month coordinator. 

“It’s a busy life, but I love it! Art education is truly my passion,” she said.

Growing up in Oswego, Illinois, Cooper took as many art classes as she could in junior high and high school, and her art teachers were very influential in her life, inspiring her to be an art teacher, too. That is why being that positive influence for the next generation of artists means so much her.

“I feel very honored to receive the meritorious service award,” she said. “It feels good to be recognized, especially so early in my career, and having taught through a pandemic. I am very grateful to be nominated and feel charged up and ready to do more in the world of art education.”

Still, Cooper knows she may never have gotten to this place of professional fulfillment without the focus NIU afforded her.

“NIU was a key part of my success,” she said. “NIU helped to give me the skills and confidence to do this job and balance my life. Living and working on campus while attending rigorous classes helped prepare me for a many-faceted job and I was greatly inspired by the campus community and inclusive environment at NIU.”