ELKHART — Class hasn’t started yet, but a group of eighth graders at Concord Junior High School are hard at work on their pottery projects Wednesday morning, March 5.
They talk, laugh together and complain about clay getting under their fingernails.
Katelyn Roell opens her sketchbook to a drawing she did earlier this year, then flips forward to her latest sketches. They’re remarkably realistic drawings of hands in different positions.
“I have improved so much,” she said emphatically. “I learned a lot from her.”
She’s talking about her art teacher, Mary Amador.
In mid-February, Amador was honored with the 2014 Ann Hamilton Award for Inspired Teaching after so many of her students were recognized for their exceptional work in this year’s regional Scholastic Art Awards.
Twenty students from Concord Junior High School took home a total of 24 awards, including 14 Gold Keys, seven Silver Keys and three Honorable Mentions.
After 23 years of teaching art at Concord High School, Amador said the secret to inspiring young artists is having high expectations.
“To not stay at status quo,” she explained, “but to always be constantly improving and to make sure that it’s your best, because the work that they’re doing is a self-portrait — not literally, but it is representative of them. If they’re proud of it, it’s gonna show through in their work.”
An average day of instruction in Amador’s spacious and well-stocked classroom includes plenty of lab work.
“A hands-on class creates dialogue,” Amador said, “So here they are comparing their artwork, they’re envisioning things, they’re making constant decisions and realizing that whatever decision they make right now is gonna affect this project — which is just like life.”
Class projects run the gamut, from painting and drawing to ceramics and pottery. Amador said the Scholastic Art Awards aren't necessarily a focus in the classroom. When the time comes to enter the competition, she chooses the best work her students have produced, then sends it on its way.
Perhaps another part of the students’ success is that Amador believes in them when they don’t believe in themselves.
“Even though I get mad sometimes because I mess up, she’s always there to tell me it’s gonna be OK and it looks good,” said Maddison Johnson, an eighth grader who earned a Silver Key Award at this year’s Scholastic Art Awards.
“When we’re not calm, she’s always calm about things,” Johnson added. “She’s just amazing.”
Amador calls her students her kids. When she sees the list of award winners, she feels proud as a teacher, but also like a parent, she said.
“I’m proud because they did it, they did it!” she said. “There’s so many kids on the list where I go ‘See, you didn’t think that was good, and I told you when I entered it that it was gonna be good.’”
In some schools districts, the arts are among the first programs to take a hit when it’s time to make tough financial decisions.
Not at Concord.
“I just received a really kind letter from (Superintendent Wayne Stubbs) where he said ‘We support academics, athletics and the arts — those are our three As,'” Amador said.
It’s that kind of support — and her students — that have kept her passion for teaching alive at Concord Junior High School, a place she wasn’t sure she’d stay when she first started more than two decades ago.
“This is home,” she said. “This is where I’ll stay.”