‘Clay man’ uses art and music to inspire kids and tell them teachers are heroes

Rodney Mott is on a one-man mission to excite children about becoming teachers.

The American River College art professor says he’s visited more than 1,000 classrooms in the last five years, using art to spread the message that teachers are heroes.

Mott, 58, decided to volunteer his time in area classrooms eight years ago, after he was temporarily laid off from his job at the college.

“When I was visiting all the teachers, they were devastated with the dialogue about their lack of training and how they weren’t not doing a good job,” he said.

Now Mott blends an amped-up art lesson with a positive message about teaching. He believes California can end its teacher shortage if students get excited about the profession at an early age.

The recession left 32,000 California educators unemployed and college students discouraged about enrolling in teaching programs. Now, additional state tax revenue has enabled schools to reduce class sizes and restore programs eliminated during the economic downturn, resulting in a need for even more teachers.

Many California districts are struggling to find enough teachers to fill vacancies and are looking beyond California to recruit new employees. The Legislative Analyst’s Office predicted in March that the teacher market would eventually correct itself, but districts will continue to lack enough special education, science and math instructors.

On Tuesday, students in Johnny Phung’s fifth-grade class at Del Paso Heights Elementary School clamored with excitement when they saw Mott come in the door holding two heavy bags of clay.

“It’s the clay man! It’s the clay man!” they yelled.

Mott more than matches their excitement, walking around the classroom sometimes playing a guitar, sometimes waving his arms and talking loudly about art, the importance of teaching and being positive.

“Whoa, look at this,” Mott exclaims, holding up a colorful picture of a rainbow. “I’m going to hang this up. It’s about the best piece of art I’ve seen in all my visits at Del Paso Heights. Clap for her. Clap for her,” he beseeches the other students.

But it’s the clay they are most excited about.

Xavius Jones, 10, said he made a shark last year when Mott came to his fourth-grade class. “Every year he gives us clay and we get to sculpt anything we want, then we get to take that home and sculpt some more,” he said.

Teresa Beckner, 10, enjoys Mott’s guitar playing. “I like him coming to my class because when someone is sad in this class, we are so happy when he comes,” she said.

Both Teresa and Xavius say they want to become teachers when they grow up, although they aren’t sure it’s because of Mott’s influence.

Mott has been coming to the school for four years. A lot of his positivity is aimed at the classroom teacher.

“Let’s clap for him,” Mott said, pointing toward Phung. “We love him. He’s our hero. Thank you. I appreciate you so much what you do for us.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert