A Call to Arms: Mentors & Coaches

With @MrsStevensonSS
With @MrsStevensonSS

This is Erin Stevenson (@MrsStevensonSS). I am suppose to say that she is a fairly typical 2nd year high school social studies teacher, only she’s not. She came to teaching later in life, after trials and tribulations, and finding herself. And I am also suppose to say that she is fairly typical, in that after having had an assigned “mentor” for her first year of teaching, she’s now going it alone during this, her second year in front of students. I would venture to guess that, in this fall semester, she’s focused on not drowning, getting her lesson plans done, and not screwing anything up so badly that she loses her job. I’m guessing that, even after her first year and the benefits of that great “mentor” she had for a year, she’s still barely hanging on and not thinking any farther than the end of this week. I am suppose to say that she is a fairly typical 2nd year teacher.

There are so many ways in which I see education and teaching, and the Army and military as being alike. We join our professions right out of school, most often having done nothing else in between. When we do have a mentor, or guide, or coach, they are as likely to have followed that same path – school, then into the trenches for that and nothing else. On the job training comes from instructors who have this same sort of institutionalized, in-bred experiences, too. And in both professions, our leaders come from within – this isn’t corporate America, where leaders move from field to field, hired on for their leadership skills and assumed to pick up the required expertise or knowledge in that field only as needed to lead.

But one way the two professions differ is in growing and developing new members of the tribe. 1st year teachers are assigned – and pay out of their pockets for – a “mentor” who helps to coach them through their first year of teaching. These “mentors” often have an assigned list of things to do, from their state, or district, or union. They help 1st year teachers get acclimated, and help them not fail. In some ways, it can be a great safeguard. In other ways, it’s not much – the “mentors” are assigned, they can be (at their most base level) motivated by some extra money they’re receive, and they’re going to do it for just the one year before moving on either to another new 1st year teacher or to never do it again. I see this a coaching, but in education, it’s called a mentor; words have meaning.

And after that 1st year? Nothing. A teacher certainly won’t have someone assigned to them in this manner ever again. That never happens; there isn’t a means to do it, and if there is (in some state, district or union), it’s probably only for the most dire or worst of circumstances, in which no teacher wants to be.

Beyond that, there’s often no one else to serve as an unofficial mentor or coach. There’s no intermediate level of leadership for teachers, either, in their hierarchy of a school. This is another difference between education and my tribe, the Army. Do you think a principal or vice-principal has time to mentor or coach a 2nd year teacher? I don’t.

So, teachers are left all on their own. Like Erin, a fairly typical 2nd year high school social studies teacher whom I suspect is just trying to not drown under the load of her work this semester. And whom I suspect isn’t giving any thought to where her career is going, or thinking about what she can or should be doing now, or in 2, 5 or 10 years, to shape her career of its entire course. She needs to finish lesson plans for Monday, and grade tests from last week.

Because that is something that we in the Army do do entirely different than teacher and others in the education field. From our entrance into this profession, we as Soldiers talk with two kinds of people about where we are in our lives and where we are going. And it hurts me to see this – education and teachers would benefit from reform in education, and beginning to approaching mentoring and coaching in a new way that treats personal and professional development not as something one is subjected to, but something that is deeply personal to each individual teacher.

Teachers would benefit from taking ownership of their own professional development.

In the Army, each boss is expected to spend time with and grow each of their subordinates, on an individual basis. Each of them. As leaders, we’re held accountable for growing our subordinates; this requirement – and the Army calls this Coaching in our doctrine – is for leaders to do those things that are mentoring in nature with each of their subordinates each year, in each phase of their careers, about all aspects of their lives.

I realize how crazy that last part probably sounds, too. Some are you are probably still chewing on the idea of a principal having to make time every year, to grow and develop each teacher, and are now trying to process that this includes all aspects of their lives, too. But there’s no work-life balance in the Army. There’s just a life balance. One can’t affect your personal life without affecting your work life, and vice versa. Life is the fulcrum; plans for work and family and education and all of the other things happening need to be considered, in talking about career progression, life goals, and professional development.

But that’s part of what leadership can and should mean. And whether you want to say it’s formal or informal leadership, being a leader means caring for and nurturing those you chose to leader, and those who follow you. Because in the Army, there are these other kinds of mentoring relationships – actual mentors. These are the people that one seeks out, to establish a relationship with for counsel and advice, and while that relationship may start because of a work relationship, it often continues on over time and distance. And in the Army, it’s often not one mentor that one has, but several. A mentor may be far ahead of you in your career, or just a little bit – a mentor is someone who helps you fill a need, as you work to define and fill the needs associated with managing your career and your own personal and professional development.

With these two types of mentors (one coach, one mentor) in the Army, we’re able to talk about all of the things in our lives – work, family, education, major milestones, etc – and fuse them together into plans for our individual personal and professional development. It’s an active and involved process, the onus is on the individual with the belief that there is no one more invested in personal and professional development that the person it relates to, and the Army has made this a part of its culture. It works.

Teachers and educators need these types of things as well, and I really do think they too would benefit from this. But I’m also a realist – there’s no principal in an American school today who is going to say that they have the time or the resources necessary to sit with each of their teachers and faculty, to talk with them through where they are in their careers and lives and where they think they are going, and to work with them to start to draw up roadmaps.

But what can we do? 1200+ words later, and I’ve described a problem and solutions that aren’t immediately applicable in changing education in America.

Great. Become the kind of leader in education that education really needs. Become the kind of teacher than looks out for others in the profession. Take someone or even some people under your wing in just this way, and begin to talk with them at length about the full range of things associated with their personal and professional development, from where they are going with their careers and what it will take to get there, to how that meshes with their family, plans for education, growing old, and even things like impact of the careers of their significant others.

And take ownership of your own career, and your own career plans. If you’re waiting for someone else to manage it, or for someone else to professionally develop it, I can tell you this: they will fuck it up. It’s yours; own it. For as important as your personal and professional development are, put the effort into them. It’s worth it, especially with regard to finding life balance.

That, to me, is where Professional Learning Network will make huge dividends for teachers. When teachers and educators can find people with whom they have trust and can develop a level of intimacy necessary to have these kinds of conversations, they are going to be able to take hold of their own personal and professional development and plot courses for making their careers even better. And this will only benefit everyone, from the kids in the classroom on up. Find your guide, but make time to be one, too.

3 thoughts on “A Call to Arms: Mentors & Coaches

  1. I know that Kory’s (@tritonkory) face will grimace at the length of this # but I really want to start #advocatingnotcomplaining because I have spoken with so many in my field who are afraid to speak up. Heaven forbid we say something negative. We can’t complain, our reward is the seed we have sown in the futures of our children. . But what other profession doesn’t get raises, promotions, or paid professional development. What teacher wouldn’t advocate for her kids? Why will that same teacher not advocate for herself? (Or himself?) In the ARMY you go up in status, rank, and pay. In teaching, you just get told to do more things. We are worth it. It might be time to complain, er, I mean advocate. Let’s continue this over coffee 🙂

  2. A la Jeffersonian: Whereupon I believe that all matters shall be settled and through our discourse all endeavors, wheretofore left previously unchanged, will heretofore be determined into a point of solution. I can’t hardly wait.

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