Everyone Needs a Mentor…or Two…or Three
By Kathy Anderkin, Contributing Writer
“Do you want the job? Here are the keys. Books are there somewhere. Call Becki.”
My new principal walked down the hall after giving me my first job and my first official piece of educational advice. It was the very best advice I would ever receive.
Over the next twenty-eight years, Becki led, pushed, and walked beside me through both professional and personal ups and downs. Even when she moved on to a new job in a different district, she stuck. She talked, teased, cajoled, and occasionally chastised me into becoming a fairly decent teacher.
Would I have survived without her? Probably. Would I have become the teacher I am today? No way. Why? Because everyone needs a mentor.
A number of years ago, the IDOE implemented a portfolio licensing plan that included assigning a trained mentor to the new teacher. The mentor element was forward-thinking and recognized the importance of having someone to talk to about the myriad issues that arise in today’s classroom.
That portfolio plan disappeared the way of many educational constructs, but the importance of mentoring and being mentored should not be abandoned.
Who needs a mentor? Why?
Every teacher needs someone to shepherd them. It makes no difference your previous work and life experiences, your college GPA, or your student teaching opportunities. Today’s educational landscape is filled with mines.
From curriculum planning, climate, communication, and classroom management to skills tests, evaluations, and social media pressure–every day demands your careful attention and high stakes decision making. It can be exhausting, and it doesn’t end when you walk through the door in the evening.
Having someone to skip ideas off of matters. Having someone that you trust matters. Experience matters. When the piles of papers to grade are taller than you are, when you are in that mid-winter slump, when “that” parent is on your e-mail, you need a friend. And if you are like me, you won’t outgrow that need!
How do you find a mentor?
In a perfect world a new teacher is assigned an experienced teacher that has had mentoring training, shares a common discipline, and physical proximity. They share a common planning period and extra time to work together. They observe each other in the classroom and share a love and enthusiasm for teaching.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world. If you’re lucky, the teacher next door will nod knowingly and offer advice in passing. Understanding that, you need to seek out your Becki. Don’t wait.
If you’re reading this and don’t have someone to share with, start now. Look around you. Take the time to really observe what’s going on in your building. Where is the calm in the middle of the storm? Who appears willing to try new things in their classroom and is willing to share both the successes and the failures?
Who receives the respect of the faculty when speaking in a meeting? Who regularly engages in small kindnesses toward everyone in the hall? Who seems to know what all those educational acronyms mean? Who do the kids go to for a smile, a high-five, academic help?
Are they busy? Probably. Are they a little intimidating? Maybe. Are you afraid you’ll appear to be less than together if you ask for help? Possibly. Do it anyway. Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed. It is easy to become isolated in a big building with hundreds of people. Isolation is not the way to survive and thrive in a school.
Successful teaching is built on relationships. Teachers should be life-long learners. Use your community. Build relationships. Learn from the experts around you.
What should you do once you have found a mentor?
Pick your person, set up a meeting, and go prepared. Make a list and prioritize your questions. There will never be enough time, and often one question/answer leads to another. Take the issues that are most pressing at that moment and listen…really listen.
Be willing to try something new and stick with it for enough time to really know if it’s an answer for you. What works is not always immediately comfortable and something that works for your mentor might not work for you. A willingness to try and an open mind is a must, and sometimes the simple and most obvious answer really is the best one!
What if it doesn’t work?
Not every mentor experience will be a perfect fit. As in any relationship, there will be growing pains. Sometimes, with the the best of intentions and good people on both sides of the equation, it just doesn’t work out. Trust your instincts-and theirs- and if you find that your mentor relationship really isn’t working, don’t be afraid to seek help somewhere else.
Teaching is never clear cut or easy, but it is always worth it. Don’t give up. You need and deserve support. Find it. Search out that colleague that will make your teaching–and your life–better. Find your Becki. You’ll be glad you did!