Teachers & Mentors

One of my most rewarding experiences in the Army was the time I spent both as a mentor and as a protege. I am proud to say that many of those relationships continue on today, just as I am proud to say that I learned much about both being a mentor and protege, and about the art of the relationship, during my time in the service. It truly is a valuable tool to have and use during the course of any profession or career.

But one of the things that drives me batty, in talking with teachers and others in the education world, is their different use or even misuse of mentoring – different from the great experiences I had while serving in the Army. And much of it boils down to two things: mentoring relationships should be based on differences in experiences, and mentoring relationships should be voluntary.

In education, I often hear about “having a mentor assigned…” especially with regard to junior and especially with regard to first year teachers. Someone other than the junior / first year teachers makes a decision for them, and assigns someone to work with them, in some capacity. And it often involves checklists – a district checklist, a union-developed checklist, some kind of checklist of things that these teachers can or should be able to do at different stages during this critical initial stage of their teaching career. The idea is that this assigned senior teacher will check to see that the junior teacher can and is doing these things, and if they are not, will provide them with the coaching – showing them the skills necessary to ensure they are then able to do it – needed to bring them up to some pre-determined standard.

Clipboards, checklists – it sounds more like baseball camp for 8 year old kids than it does professional development.

Imagine this situation. A new teacher has one of these assigned “mentors.” The mentors checks to see if the new teacher has and is keeping a grade book; the teacher isn’t, or isn’t doing it well. The mentor teacher takes time to show the new teacher how to keep a grade book, and later follows up to ensure that the new teacher really did learn the skill. If yes, the skill has been transferred and the little box can be checked off as complete.

It’s like a damn flow chart.

But finding an actual mentor and entering into a mentoring relationship with someone isn’t built about skills like this, but about differences in experiences.

Imagine a junior teacher who has come to the realization that, very likely, they will want or need to go back to school for an advanced degree in the near to mid term. That most certainly is not going to be on some new-teacher checklist, right? How to find someone with whom to discuss this, so as to make the best decision possible at the right time? That’s a great example of when a mentor could play a great role in helping someone make a decision for themself.

Using this same analogy, finding a mentoring to helping with this decision would likely mean finding someone who already has a degree in the same kind of grad program the protege is considering. Or maybe someone who is working in the area or field, whether they have the degree or not.

Which is why the second element – voluntary, and selected by the protege – matters the most. Mentors are about needs, and finding solutions for them – as defined and validated by the people who have them, which in these cases are always the protege. An outsider can’t say to someone, what you need for a protege is xxxxx. It has to come from the individual with the void, who is seeking others whose experiences will help them to ultimately make choices and decisions in their own life.

Teachers and educators who are on twitters and social media can have some advantages in finding mentors, or even in being mentors, if they are talking with people about more than shallow education topics and are also talking about themselves, their upcoming decisions in life, and / or their own experiences.

One of the interesting thing about being a mentor – and a coach, for that matter – is that it can be from any part of your life. Someone who is an a teacher and an avid gardener can and should serve as a coach for other teachers looking to do project based learning that involved gardening, even if gardening isn’t something that would be on their CV.

I should mention one last thing about mentoring, which is the things that bosses are often expected to do with their employees that are mentoring in nature. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that a good leader, and a good boss, will ask after their subordinates, to see if their are things in their lives with which they need help, for which a mentor would be appropriate. And a good leader and boss would either help to try to find someone or some candidates for consideration to be the mentor or, barring the person finding a mentor, try to help out as best they can. That, though, is leadership, and not mentoring.

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