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Ceramics Teacher's Avant Garde Methods Land him Teacher of the Year Award

A student of George Juliano's ceramics class came into the room, sat down and smashed her handmade statue into pieces with a hammer. It was filled with bits of paper with descriptive words on them that were "all the things that made people beautiful on the inside," the theme of that class project, according to Juliano. That was just one example of the freeform expression Juliano encourages and one reason the Robinson Secondary School teacher won the Fairfax County Teacher of the Year Award for 2002.

"I encourage them to come up with new ideas. In this class, it's OK to say, 'I see a bear in the clouds.' I truly believe those will be the inventors in our society," he said.

Lauren Fukumitsu is a senior at Robinson, who's been in Juliano's class for her last two years of high school. She liked the way Juliano critiqued her work by showing her the endless possibilities.

"I love this class because of that," she said.

Michelle Colen, senior, was proud of her "slam pot" she displayed at this year's art show at Robinson. The method she used was in tune with Juliano's teaching.

"You take a piece of clay and slam it on the ground. It's good for taking out aggressions. He's very encouraging about that sort of thing," she said.

IN THE CLASSROOM, he displays all his students’ snapshots because he believes in them, and he plays the stereo during school hours.

"This is ceramics heaven," he called the room, which has a few pottery wheels on one side, kilns, buckets of glaze and miscellaneous art pictures everywhere. Out back, there are special "raku" pits for a special way of firing. He's been recognized by the art establishment with some of his articles in Pottery Making Illustrated and a South African artists’ magazine. He's also gotten e-mails from as far away as Thailand and Mexico regarding his knowledge of ceramics.

"Here are the raku pits I invented. People call me from all over the world," he said.

There is a secret to his success, he admitted.

"Here's the secret: There's no secret. Every student is treated as though they’re significant," he said.

That spirit is a by-product of his own past. He was raised in a non-affluent community in New York City near the Bronx — "on the other side of the tracks," as he called it. He relates to troubled students.

"I seem to relate to them. I have an opportunity to sit with the kids and talk about everything. We have a feeling of respect. I treat them as if they're important," he said.

One of his former students, who had a troubled history in high school, became immersed in the art scene and is now making a career of it.

"He's graduated from an Arizona college with honors," he said, feeling his impact on the student made the difference. He spoke of teachers in general who have an influence in students' success.

"It was a teacher somewhere," he said.

Juliano's influence came from his father, who was a scoutmaster.

"My dad was a scoutmaster. He would take kids from all over to Scout meetings. I think he was my hero," he said.

JULIANO GRADUATED from Middle Tennessee State University in 1967 and taught art in Salisbury, Md., before moving to Langley High School, where he taught for 15 years. It wasn't until 1987 that he became a permanent fixture at Robinson. Word has gotten out about his class, though. Sophomore Pouya Gharahdaghi looks forward to next year.

"Hopefully I'm going to have him next year," he said.

Fellow sophomore Bebe Meundan has heard rumors, too.

"I heard he was cool, really supportive," he said.

In addition to high-school ceramics, he teaches a Virginia Commonwealth University class in the evening.

Fellow Robinson art teacher Yang Poppen takes the class in the evening, and he nominated Juliano for the Teacher of the Year Award.

"I knew him as a colleague and ceramic instructor," she said.

Roger Tomhave, the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) fine arts coordinator, attended the art show at Robinson on April 11, with Betty Ann Plishker, FCPS arts specialist.

"We're just really excited an elective teacher gets the award," Tomhave said.

"He does so much for teachers. He teaches them. He never hesitates to take the time," Plishker added.

His award includes $3,000 and a chance to represent FCPS in the Virginia's Teacher of the Year Competition in the fall.