Today's prompt: What does a good mentor "do"?
This might be the hardest question I've had to face in this blogging challenge (so far). I respect the idea of mentors and I think we all need them in various aspects of our lives, but I'm wary of what I see as forced mentorship, which I think happens all too frequently. Mentors are a powerful influence, but they are relationship that needs to form organically rather than as a mandate.
In my first two years of teaching (as with all Iowa teachers) I was assigned a mentor. I had no opportunity to meet this person beforehand, and the pairing was made solely because she was the person who had previously held my position. I don't want this to sound like I had a disastrous experience; she was a lovely person and kind to me in many ways during those first two years. The problem was, we had nothing in common. Her teaching background was at the Elementary level, moved up to middle school English to cover an empty position. We had a 30+ year difference in age, and virtually no chemistry or common ground. We were always polite and friendly, but I never felt comfortable confiding in her, and spent most of those years as alone and lost as I would have been had I not had a mentor. Looking back, it was more my fault than hers, but it was obvious the relationship was not real since as soon as the required state paperwork was filed at the end of the two year period, we never had a meaningful conversation again. It wasn't until a few years later, when I took my first Iowa Writing Project class that I found true mentorship.
So before I can say what a good mentor does, I think the first step is that a mentor-mentee relationship needs to be a natural thing, formed only after two people have found someone they can connect to (this is starting to sound like dating). Young teachers naturally gravitate toward experienced people they respect and relate to, and those mentors-in-waiting are good at spotting the diamonds in the rough they'd like to work with. For a successful partnership, they need to be allowed to find each other instead of forced together by a mandated checklist.
After that relationship is formed, a good mentor shows rather than tells. Guidance comes through seeing someone put theory into practice and make it real, shows the mentee how to do by example. The mentor also reminds the mentee of the why behind the work we do. The mentee's responsibility is just as great in this scenario: she has to observe, reflect, ask questions, and grow as a teacher.
A mentor stresses the importance of reflection on practice, the (sometimes difficult) admission that teaching is never perfected, only refined through trial and error and dedication. Mentors and mentees need to have enough trust and comfort to be honest about these faults and how to best improve them. Ego is not part of the growth collaboration.
A successful mentor shares his thoughts, beliefs, and ideas with his mentee while still allowing her to forge her own path. A good mentor encourages opportunities for growth and extension beyond just the partnership of two. The mentor also realizes when she can learn something from her mentee, because the relationship should be beneficial to both involved.
Most importantly, a mentor reminds the mentee why we need others in this business: we can't do it better alone. We learn from each other- young, old, new, experienced; we all have something to bring to the table. These partnerships remind us that the sharing of ideas make for better practice across a wider spectrum, and when the benefits of that pass from teachers to students, that's the impact of a true, successful mentor.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.