Amazing Grace

Nebinger youngsters have been enjoying more vibrant experiences since Leslie Grace became their teacher three years ago.

Photos provided by Leslie Grace

Because of her creative identity, Leslie Grace loves that many elements of life are open to vast interpretation. The advocate for subjectivity definitely enjoys brushes with objectivity, too, and received a concrete cause for celebration recently with the formal announcement that she had claimed the Pennsylvania Art Educators Association’s Elementary Art Educator of the Year honor for her efforts at George W. Nebinger School.

“This is really not about me,” Grace, 35, said of the acknowledged success that she has had at the Bella Vista institution. “It’s about everyone who has helped me and inspired me along the way.”

Her connection to the school community includes the fact that she resides only four blocks from the building, 601 Carpenter St. She will accept her distinction Saturday through a late morning gathering at the Moore College of Art & Design. As part of the association’s annual conference, the occasion will find her eager not to collect kudos but rather insights on how to grow as a motivator.

“I’m never still in my learning,” Grace said of her curiosity. “I’m constantly in pursuit of ways to improve because our children need to know that continually seeking the best from themselves can really open doors.”

The humble honoree learned of the prize in late July and needed to put a cap on the news until last week. The Nebinger family has proven a great source of support as everyone has begun a new year, with the victor eager to continue to draw attention to her pupils’ potential.

“People need to express themselves, and the possibilities for that expression can be so compelling,” Grace, whose awareness of her discipline’s importance has helped her to raise more than $20,000 through crowdfunding over the last three years to cover supply costs, said. “I have great rapport with my students, and that’s what drives me. An accolade is definitely nice, but when I wake each day, I’m thinking about what kinds of connections we can establish and foster.”

A peer within the Philadelphia Art Teachers Alliance nominated the eventual winner, with the local needing to acquire two letters of recommendation. Not one to tout herself, Grace said accepting compliments has been an exercise in brevity, as she has replied to them without much elaboration.

“This could sound funny because I’m the one who won, but what makes me happiest is knowing that a teacher from the School District (of Philadelphia) is receiving the recognition,” Grace said. “We always hear that it can be tough to connect with learners in the city, but I think of it as such a rewarding practice. Every child has so much to say, so I’m fortunate to help the Nebinger students to do well because they want that encouragement.”

The South Carolina native has always felt ardent about art, with its inherent ability to give everyone a say initially proving irresistible to the “awkward kid.” Fond of experimenting, she gravitated toward modern art, loving how it could test the boundaries of expression.

“It’s where I’ve always felt the most comfortable,” she said of inhabiting space in the ever-evolving art world. “Just being able to ponder a concept and to make something of it are really such joyful practices. Giving children that extra push when they’re so young really does it for me, too.”

Grace studied art education at Georgia State University and began her educational career as a high school instructor. An elementary stint in Delaware preceded a lengthy stay at Friends’ Central School, during which she obtained her master’s degree at Saint Joseph’s University. A North Philly opportunity followed, and then Nebinger came along, with her hiring three years ago becoming the inciter of the happiest segment of her life.

“I certainly feel more connected with them than I have with any other group of students,” Grace, whose duties find her holding the Expressive Arts Lead title and encouraging kindergarten, second, third, fifth, and seventh graders at this junction of the year, said. “Especially with the younger set, I find myself being goofy with them and discussing with them how much fun this all can be and should be.”

Operating with a firm belief in growth mindset, which states is an aid in helping people to “believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point,” she has made classroom sessions constant affirmations of unity, a theme that she noted often comes through in her learners’ work.

“They want that connection to the world around them,” she beamed. “They are realizing their importance more and more each day, and I believe they’re going to be great contributors to whatever fields they choose and are going to make their neighborhoods proud.”

Grace finds herself particularly enthused about their overall growth, serving as Nebinger’s community liaison under Principal Anh Brown. As the news of her award spreads and as her venture to the Moore College of Art & Design looms, the educator knows she will never succumb to hubris now that she has a state honor to her name. In fact, she intends to keep commending others for their part in her joyful journey and will undoubtedly continue to try to captivate the Nebinger youngsters, which, based on her impending Art Museum-area trip and the respect that the learners and their parents hold for her, should result in a masterpiece.

“I love what we’re doing each day to fill our students with confidence and additional belief in their abilities,” Grace said. “I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else, and I don’t intend to start doing so either. There are so many positives going on inside each classroom that I can’t help but feel really fortunate to say I teach at Nebinger.” SPR

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Nebinger youngsters have been enjoying more vibrant experiences since Leslie Grace became their teacher three years ago.

Photos provided by Leslie Grace

Leslie Grace will receive her prize at the Moore College of Art & Design.

Photo provided by Leslie Grace