Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Friday 06.17.11

What would it look like if schools really educated?

Tuesday I began coursework toward my Administration & Supervision Certification.  I am not sure if I want to be a Vice Principal or a Principal, but it feels like the next step and it is good to learn new things.  Right?

I was immediately struck, as cliché as it is to say, by the differences between “art schools” versus “regular schools.” The first day of “art” graduate school, I was asked the existential question, “How have you arrived here?” We were told to answer that question in any visual form we chose.  The prompt along with the professor’s tone and approach to learning set the tone for a year full of explorations and discoveries.  It was a year in which I expanded to the point of tears, but in which I learned and earned my self-worth.  Yesterday, at “regular” graduate school, I was asked – well not even really asked – to sit for three hours while the professor lectured.  It was a very interesting lecture about the law and school governance but nevertheless I walked away sorely missing art school. 

In the days since, I have been thinking and daydreaming – yes, daydreaming – about what my future school would look like and be like. Why was “art” school so different? And did it need to be this way? I gave myself the exercise to imagine what a school entirely of my creation - my school - would look like.  I first imagined a beautiful building with orderly classrooms, rows and rows of desks, and children in lines. Students would be obedient and teachers would sit in the front of the classroom and fill their students with knowledge. Then I realized that would be like lecturing for three hours, with no break, for the rest of my life. 

A school as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is an institution designed for the teaching of students (or "pupils") under the supervision of teachers.  So what would MY school look like….I think MY school would not be a school.  It would look like a concrete jungle; a city transformed into a school.  It would be full of real life problems and adults who wanted to solve those problems.  Students would learn by doing and not just doing what we say or what we want but what they think deserves to be done.  What do we call that – constructivism or expeditionary learning or Montessori?  Maybe it is all of these and something new.  My school would connect students virtually and physically; a vegetable garden; a video project using their cell phones; real conversation between students and teachers.

What would it look like if schools really educated?

~Vanessa López-Sparaco

Friday 06.10.11


Yesterday was one of those hard days of teaching. It is the second to last week of school – extended from its original date due to snow days – and it is close to 100 degrees. We have no central air in the school.  The joys of urban education. 

An interaction with one student led to a phone call home. I must admit that this is my least favorite part of teaching. I can discipline but I feel it takes away from me actually teaching. The student, let us call her Mary, is smart, talented and definitely a leader.  She has, over the two years I have known her, changed quite a bit.  Her art skills have improved; her attitude has not.

Prior to today I have spent many days thinking of Mary. What types of lessons would engage Mary? What types of issues is she grappling with? How could I expand her world view? How could art make her feel less angry; less alone? Up until today I have not been able to answer all those questions.  Mary loves some lessons like the Arcimboldo self portraits but refuses to participate in others. Some days Mary and I are best friends. Some days, like today, I am her arch-nemesis.

Mary poses a constant frustration for me. Or maybe not so much Mary herself but the 5% like Mary who need more. More time, more attention, more resources, more love. And it is the adults, parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, who refuse, can’t or don’t know how to give more that truly frustrate.  

I think yesterday I forgot to love Mary. I forgot that as a teacher and as a mentor there are times I do not know what to do or say. There are times I need to give more, to become fully human in my ignorance. 


~Vanessa López-Sparaco

Wednesday 06. 1.11

Mentoring: Reaching to Inspire

"Learning is finding out that you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers."
                                                                            --Richard Bach

I think I became an educator because I spent most of my young adult life looking for a teacher.  I desperately wanted someone to guide me, to mentor me and show me the way.  It took some years for me to realize that I possessed all MY answers – that we all have all the answers – and that mentors just remind us of that often.  I have since been very fortunate to have found amazing mentors who have reminded me often of my own knowledge and the ambiguity of life.

This semester I was fortunate to have two student teachers from two very different art education programs.  I always find it a refreshing challenge to mentor soon-to-be teachers.  They come with such great ideas, excitement and vulnerability.  They are so eager to learn.  In their absence, I find myself reflecting on teacher preparation and the mentoring relationship.

How do we truly prepare someone to be a teacher? We can teach lesson planning and curriculum mapping.  We can (to a certain extent) teach classroom management and we can provide classroom experiences.  But can you teach someone to be an inspiring educator?  Like pit-of-your-stomach-oozing-out-of-you-passion- for teaching teacher? 

So what does it take from the mentor?  I think it takes a mentor who is inspiring – who loves their work and projects that feeling onto his or her students.   A teacher who teaches who they are while setting boundaries.  For the final self reflection, one of my student teachers wrote “I have learned that being an effective teacher is not all about what I am teaching, but how I deliver a lesson , the type of relationships I build with the students and who I am.”  I also think it takes a mentor who remembers the fear and anxiety of teaching that comes with year one.  Finally I think it takes a mentor who believes in the student- teacher. To quote some unknown genius “a lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could”.  That is the power we have as mentors.

Use it often!

-Vanessa López-Sparaco