Manassas Park High School art teacher Janice Yurchik Knestrick encourages her students to clown around. For Knestrick, the hijinks of clowning in performance can instill confidence in young people.
"She has an awareness that goes far beyond the classroom," said Pat Zahl, who teaches physical and life science at Manassas Park Intermediate School, which adjoins the high school. "She's sort of like still waters that run deep. She's always there, she's always got a smile, always doing -- very, very interested."
Known as "Mrs. K" to her students, Knestrick, 36, had her career goal in sight from an early age. "I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My mother gave me a chalkboard at 5 years old, and I think that was what did it." Her older brother inspired her to pursue her artistic talents.
Knestrick, a recipient of The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, has worked as Manassas Park High's only art teacher since the school opened in 1976. Her classes include seventh- through 12th-graders from the high school and the adjoining intermediate school.
"She gets into her job," said Butch Havle, a junior at Manassas Park High who plans to attend the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design after graduation. "She doesn't just teach. She's influential. It's hard to teach art -- I guess it has to come from the person."
For Knestrick, having a zest for life and sharing that enthusiasm is critical to succeeding.
That's one reason she formed the Cougar Spirit Clowning Troupe four years ago to perform throughout the community.
"I felt there was a dramatic arts outlet needed. I always wanted to be a clown and I wanted someone else to do it with me."
"It makes me feel good about myself because I'm making others feel good," said sophomore Denise Daniels, "Giggles" to her clown friends. Michella Daniels, who performs as "Silly," says the troupe helped her overcome shyness.
In addition to her work with the clown troupe (Knestrick is "Hugs"), and hosting the Cougar News cable television program, which highlights student life in the Manassas Park school system, Knestrick organizes the annual schoolwide art show.
She also started the first cheerleading squads, has coached the track team, has served as class sponsor and has guided her students to numerous awards, including a third-place finish in the Virginia Traffic Safety Poster program.
"If I were to pick one of her best qualities, I would say it would be her enthusiasm -- her enthusiasm for her job, her enthusiasm for working with the students . . . her enthusiasm for the school system," said Manassas Park High School Principal Dave Nelson.
For now, teaching is Knestrick's career priority.
In addition to the enjoyment it brings, Knestrick said the job enables her to spend time with her husband, Joseph, and their two children, 6-year-old Mary Bridgette and 3-year-old Brittany Megan.
However, she would eventually like to design stained-glass windows in a "glass-enclosed studio on the beach."
Until then, Knestrick wants to help her students learn to use their time creatively.
For Knestrick, there is a simple reason why teaching is so worthwhile: "Smiles. And just the way students' eyes light up when you've taught them something that makes them develop their own talent."