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Why Mentorship Matters

It's spring: I feel alternately exhausted from the year that's moving quickly to a close, and a sense of renewal that takes its cue from the seasonal weather and the end of winter.  It was a perfect time to visit my mentor, Madeleine Ray, who advised me during and beyond my time as a graduate student at Bank Street College. Seeing her teach, and being reminded of her values and sensibilities, always feels a bit like going home. And that makes me want to share some advice, especially meant for beginning teachers who plan to stay in teaching for a substantial amount of time.

Try to find a true mentor, and keep in touch. 

There will be many educators who will help you learn things, big and small, deliberately or unknowingly, about teaching.  An eye for picking up on these lessons and techniques when they come your way is very important. But to find a mentor, you have to find someone whose teaching you deeply respect, whose methods help you fulfill the higher purpose you have for being an educator. A mentor inspires and equips you to be the educator you set out to be. 

I believe that all teachers want the best for their students, but we do not all value the same things in our students.  Values are a part of teaching and teaching methods derive from a combination of the needs of students, the values of the teacher, and the values and conditions of the larger organizations and systems in which we carry out our work.  If teaching is a calling, then we must take time to understand what we feel called to do and why.  

A mentor should be someone who understands why you teach and who helps you connect your teaching methods with this purpose. If you are lucky enough to find someone who helps you do this, talk to this person a much as you can! Keep in touch. It's okay to take the initiative and let someone know you want to learn from them.  It's a good skill. 

In addition to all of the opportunities you'll have to learn from colleagues in the teaching field, you'll also have many pressures that come from outside your classroom and collegial networks. These pressures may or may not move you in the direction of your goals as a teacher; they may or may not be in line with your educational values. If you succumb to every pressure, you surely won't meet your goals, because these pressures are almost always shifting and competing with one another, for reasons that have little to do with students, and everything to do with the adult world.  

When the pressure becomes at odds with your values and goals, as an educator who came to the profession to stay a while, to humble yourself and learn to make a difference for students and their communities--that is when you'll appreciate the opportunity to talk with someone you consider a mentor.  You'll appeciate being in the presence of a teacher who has weathered the storms longer than you have, and who has stayed true.  

Then you can quote Isaac Newton and say, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

[photo: Madeleine Ray teaching her Children's Literature course at Bank Street College. She always makes students form a circle, and she always begins class sharing unusually neat books].

10 Comments

Sandy Merz commented on May 1, 2014 at 12:24pm:

A favorite quote

I've always been fond of that quote and in fact it's what got me reading your blogs before I got so involved with CTQ. They say education is wasted on the young. And while mentoring is by no means wasted on new teachers, I wish there were more opportunities for veteran and accomplished teachers to be mentored, too. I would love to sit down and get coaching from someone who saw me teach regulary. 

Kris Giere commented on May 1, 2014 at 1:47pm:

The Importance of Mentorship

Thank you for highlighting one of the greatest assets every educator can have: a mentor.  Finding a mentor is tricky sometimes.  I have been lucky enought to find a few over the years.  I have also been lucky enough to recently have an unlikely colleague mentor me.  In many ways, she and I have had our differences in our pedagogical choices and views, but we both focused on helping students acheive their goals.  She challenged me in ways that a "comfortable" mentor may not have, and for that, I am grateful and have told her as much.

Again, thank you for reminding us that we have valuable influences, likely or unlikely as they may be, who shape us for the better as we grow in our role of educator.

Rebecca J Dahl, M.Ed. commented on May 2, 2014 at 2:36pm:

Mentors

Are you kidding?  After spending four years at the university level, these people cannot be ready to go into the classroom?  Then university needs to look at their educational programs.  I understand mentors are important, but that educational funds (taxpayers') need to be spent to have someone teach them how to teach!  This is another indicator that education reform has not been successful.  We need education restructuring. 

Jennifer Joy Yocum commented on May 2, 2014 at 8:36pm:

Mentors

As a teacher about complete with my first year of teaching, I have to say that I am grateful for a wonderful mentor.  My university did a good job in helping me to prepare for my role as a teacher, but I believe that you really do not know about being a teacher until you are out there in your very own classroom.  The continuing learning curve of the first year is steep.  It would have been easy to quit.  Instead of that occurring, my mentor helped me keep my feet grounded in reality and to not judge myself too harshly; she helped me keep it real.  Because of that, I am ready to finish out this year well and am eager to evaluate and change some approaches for next year.  Call me weak, but I am not so sure  I would feel the same way had I not had the benefit of her experience and guidance.  Perhaps you sprang out of the womb of university ready to go, but I can assure you that there are others, who turn out to be good teachers, who did not.  

D.Code commented on May 4, 2014 at 1:42pm:

Mentors

A teacher needs an university education in order to teach. However, having an university degree does not make everyone a good teacher. An effective teacher has a solid background in their subject. This preparation allows for the needed time to think about the how to effectively engage students in the learning of the subject material. Mentors are important in this process as they have hours upon hours of experience in which methods are engaging and which methods tend to fail. As a teacher of 28 years I have learned that lessons need to be altered and adapted continuously. Each group of students has its own dynamics and what works for one group does not necessarily work for another. Having a mentor allows a young teacher to have a sounding board to reflect on their lessons. An effective mentor is another qualified working teacher who is effective in the classroom not because of his or her university degree but because they have given their heart and soul to the personal mental and emotional growth of students.

Jill commented on May 2, 2014 at 11:11pm:

Mentors

I was lucky enough to have someone post this for me. Everyone who teaches needs to connect with other teachers. You may even find true friendship in mentors. You will also find that those you mentor will become your mentors in other areas. I am lucky to have found a true friend and mentor.

Vijay commented on May 4, 2014 at 9:11pm:

All Teachers are Mentors in some way

Interesting comments - but looking back I wished I had a mentor in my early years of teaching - friends were a good source of 'mentors' and through sharing our experiences we grew from day to day. Humour was a best dose of medicine - when we recalled our students' mistakes and our own 'blunders' we did along the way. Yes I agree with Jeaniffer's Joy's mentor motto - not  judge myself too harshly. We are continually learning what more of a complex job in dealing with not just one but abt 35 young people in each class everyday. So kudos to all of us and keep the passion alive & do our part to mentor the new and younger teachers today!

Chris commented on May 5, 2014 at 5:56am:

I agree wholeheartedly about

I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of mentors, for teachers and administrators. I think it would be a great way to reinvigorate teachers throughout their careers to act as mentors. I do however disagree with the idea that teaching is a "calling", this is a profession, a job, we get paid to do this. Unfortunately this attitude that it is a calling often gets in the way with the understanding that this is a profession

Joe Kirrane commented on May 5, 2014 at 8:00am:

Mentorship

Mentorship is a two-way conversation between the Mentor and Mentee.  As a Lead Mentor in my school I am reminded of the quote by Khalil Gibran "The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his (her) wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."  The role of the Mentor is to help guide, but also listen to the Mentee and allow them to contribute to their own growth.  That growth continues well beyond the first year of teaching.  Working as a Mentor has also helped to invigorate my own teaching with a postive exchange of ideas.
 

Ariel Sacks commented on May 12, 2014 at 6:55pm:

I appreciate your thinking!

I loved reading these comments, especially seeing how many different kinds of valuable mentor experiences there are. I'm working on a follow-up piece that incorporates your perspectives. Thank you for building this post out beyond my own experience. 

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