Effective educators know one approach does not meet the needs of all learners. Some students are better listeners; some learners develop understanding by trying it out, and others learn best through reading information. We all have different strengths and preferences as students/learners. Personally, I rely heavily on listening and watching to make sense of the world. Because of my learning style, mentors have played an important part in my learning process.
Mentors can be teachers, but they also appear in other places too where learning is happening. Mentors are important because they can show you how they do it. They can model their process, name the steps they see you trying, or offer an idea that you did not even know existed.
Mentors are important because often you interact with the mentor. The process of interaction is valuable for both the mentor and the learner. The mentor is watching to see what you understand and the learner is able to check their comprehension and to ask questions. The mentor knows something about the learner and the learner knows about the mentor. It is the reciprocal nature of the relationship where the connection is made.
When I reflect on my most significant learning experiences, there are always mentors involved. They are the people who showed me at least one specific thing, which made me a better teacher.
Kevin (I don’t remember his last name) taught at my high school one day at the beginning of my junior year. His hired purpose was to teach a routine to our color guard, but his day at my school served the role of mentor for years to come. His appearance as a man teaching flags gave legitimacy to my gender-breaking role as the first boy in the color guard.
During the day, I watched him like a hawk and made mental notes of the way he instructed our group. During our breaks I got to talk and work with Kevin. I learned Kevin taught a lot of high school color guards, and that he was studying to be an elementary school teacher. That single day working with Kevin showed me a path that I would follow for years to come.
Another influential mentor was Mrs. Morrill, my high school English teacher. She would have us crank out a draft of an essay in class and then she would collect them. She did not collect them to grade; she collected them to hold. A few days later, she would pass out our drafts and have us read them. These readings of drafts always led to a revision session. Her goal was to teach us to put space between the draft and revision. This lesson stuck and it is a process I use regularly today.
In college I studied with Jerry Harste. During my first year of teaching he was working in a nearby school, and he would often stop by my classroom. He would listen to my problems and offer possible solutions.
I remember I was struggling to organize all the writing my kids were producing. His solution was simple. Have the students write the pieces, put their names on them, and then throw them into a box. At the end of the week pass out all the pieces, have each kid select his or her favorite piece of writing, and then write me a note telling me why he or she liked it. This simple solution moved time and energy away from organizing and towards the writing.
My former colleague Kathy Bartelmay influenced me in numerous ways. But the most important thing she taught me was that teaching is really hard work. There are multiple skill sets involved in teaching and no one is good at all of them. I remember struggling with trying to hit the mark on every aspect of my teaching: trying to get every paper graded, plan meaningful lessons, coach parents, and collaborate with teammates.
Kathy and I talked though all these elements many times. My takeaway from our many conversations was, “Good teachers do various things well and there are various factors influencing how well you can do any one thing. Good teachers are those teachers who continually make adjustments to be the best teacher they can on any given day.”
At this time during the year, when people are talking about thankfulness, I am thankful for all the mentors mentioned here and not, who have helped me get to this point in my teaching career.