Professional Practice

The Role of a Mentor

Do you have a mentor who has shaped your career into what it is today?  I do.  I wanted to share my story of how I became an art teacher and also how I gave back to my very special mentor, and my Elementary art teacher, Ms. Spears.  I realize wherever we are at in our career, we have people who guide and mold who we are along the way. Mine started young.  Lets start at the very beginning…

My Story

Ms. Spears was my K-5 elementary art teacher, and inspired me to become an art educator.  During my time as an elementary school student, I was consistently inspired by the art projects we did. Ms. Spears held after-school art classes, entered my artwork in various contests, and provided many opportunities to grow as an artist.  I knew I wanted to be an art teacher when I was in third grade, simply because of the quality of education I was getting.  I never changed my mind.

Now that I am an art teacher myself, I still look to Ms. Spears for inspiration. Her and I email frequently basis with tips, tools and lesson ideas. I am even using some lessons that I did as an elementary student with my own students.  With no pay or recognition, Ms. Spears has taken on the  role of a mentor for me and never hesitated to send things through the mail or meet with me when I am home on breaks.  My first years of teaching would not have been the same without her guidance.

Quality Lessons

Every lesson that Ms. Spears does exemplifies culture, history, quality, and the love of art.  Students learn about life and culture, not just art.  On the back of all pieces of artwork that leave her room, Ms. Spears attached a small note that explains to parents what the lesson was about, what the students learned and why it was important. This act helps to educate the parents and community on how important arts education is in the life of a child.  Does this sound familiar? It’s my inspiration for my Itty Bitty Papers!

Giving Back

I was able, a few years back, to return the favor of a lifetime career inspiration to Ms. Spears. I nominated her for Outstanding Art Educator of Iowa, and she got it! When she found out she had won the award, this is what she said:

“I opened an envelope with a letter stating that I have been selected as the 2008 Outstanding Elementary Art Educator.  Hmmmm…… I must confess I was, and still am, in a state of disbelief.  I really did not think I would be chosen, but felt so honored by the nomination.  I really did not tell a soul, other than my two references.  For me, the true legacy of my art education passion is you.  I feel so honored that you chose to go into art education.  Your desire started at such a young age and you never wavered.  It has been a pleasure to see you grow up and become the outstanding person you are.  I am so proud of you and what you have achieved and will achieve.  Every art teacher wants the next generation to be a great one.  You are an extension of this award.  Thank you. I feel humbled by the experience.”

It’s re-reading things like this that ground me. Help me to remember why I entered this profession and the things I love about teaching art. I summon those feelings I felt sitting in my elementary art classroom whenever I have a bad day or whenever I forget the real reason I teach. Whenever I let a grouchy teacher or a silly budget cut get me down… I close my eyes and I can go right back to elementary school and remember my dreams of becoming an art teacher. I also think it’s important to note this blog and my love of art education is years in the making.  There is special reason why I am so passionate about what I do and so willing to share with all of you. Someone did that for me!

Here is a photo of Ms. Spears and I at my senior art show back in college….

Thanks, Ms. Spears.  For the lessons, for the inspiration, and for believing in me.  I would not be where I am without your help.  Life is about connections with the people you meet and about others seeing the best in you and bringing that out.  I have met so many wonderful people in the past year that are also great mentors and inspirations, however, Ms. Spears was my very first mentor and the reason I am an art teacher.

What made me think of this? All the talk on portfolios this week! Do you know who helped me get my portfolios together and gave me the idea to even do portfolios the way I do? Take a wild guess…

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants – Isaac Newton

What role has a mentor played in your life?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is AOEU’s Founder and a former AOEU Writer and elementary art educator. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.

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