I’m one of those people who believe in signs. If the universe wants you to know something—to do something—the universe will find a way of making sure you know about it. And so it is with this word: mentor.
One the last day of school, I found myself staying late to finish packing. In the past, I’ve prided myself on being one of the first teachers out of the building once the official announcement has been made by our principal. This year, for whatever reason, I didn’t find myself in as much of a hurry. I like to think of it as a kind of maturity—how, I’m not exactly sure—but more likely it was that I just hadn’t finished packing yet. (The more I think about it, though, I think I was hesitant to let the year end… for reasons I may have to unearth in a later post.)
One of the only other people left in the building was a department colleague and dear friend, Judith. If you are fan of Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s Countess Dowager bears a striking resemblance, both in looks and personality. Judith is our department’s grande dame, having taught longer than some of our younger teachers have been alive. She exudes wisdom, delivered with spunk.
…the teacher I am today was, in some measure, because of her.
Judith is also the type of person with whom there is no “quick conversation.” So I knew walking into her room that afternoon, at 4 o’clock on the very last day of school, that to enter meant to stay. Perhaps because it was the last day of school, our conversation grew reflective, nostalgic. An hour or so later, as we were leaving, she paid me a wonderful (undeserved, I think) compliment. My response—really, the only response possible—was that the teacher I am today was, in some measure, because of her.
When I came to Conestoga HS in 2001, I was a complete newbie. Recently minted with degrees in hand, I entered the classroom as most teachers do: wide-eyed. It didn’t take long to realize just how much work was involved in teaching, as I rushed from one side of the building to another in the four minutes between periods to teach my next class.
I don’t think I can overstate the support that Judith gave me that first year—and really, in every year since then. I remember one late night (there were many) when I was sitting in the department room preparing for an upcoming unit. Sensing how overwhelmed and rundown I had been feeling, she asked me what I was passionate about. “What do you love? What story, what poem, what do you love?” she insisted. “When you’re feeling down, and we’ve all been there,” she added, “it’s time to shut the door and teach what you love.”
This advice has stayed with me. In fact, I shared it recently in a #Good2Great Twitter chat. Judith’s advice on that late night, now nearly 15 years ago, is an important reminder that our passions—as readers, writers, and human beings—can be channeled in the service of our students. I don’t know any teacher who is passionate about fulfilling Common Core standard X, Y, or Z, but give a teacher the opportunity to share a beloved book? And better yet, to pass that love on to her students? That’s when magic can happen.
I finished reading Meenoo Rami’s book Thrive this week. It’s a wonderful book, for many reasons. What resonated most deeply with me, however, was the first chapter on the importance of mentors in our professional lives. Rami recalls her own need for mentors to energize her, and even goes on to discuss the varying roles that different mentors played in her life. She mentions, for example, the mentor who helped her see what’s possible in her practice, the mentor who helped fine-tune her instruction, who dared her into new work, who helped her find a community, helped her to see what’s possible in her writing life, to share her work publicly, and finally, the mentor who helped her stay balanced. Rami is, as she concludes, the sum of all her mentors.
The word mentor is derived from the Greek epic, The Odyssey. In the classic tale, Odysseus asks the goddess Athena to transform herself into a human companion, a man named Mentor, who would advise his young son, Telemachus, while Odysseus is away. Like Telemachus, I have had my own mentors to guide me. Like Rami, I know that I am the sum of all my mentors.
I didn’t go into teaching to necessarily become a mentor for young people. In fact, though I know I may guide students every day, I feel a bit uncomfortable thinking of myself as a mentor. Perhaps it’s because I think of the word mentor as a verb—something I do rather than something I am. Who we are, after all, is best demonstrated by what we do. I can recall, at every stage in my education, those significant individuals who—through their actions and our interactions—shaped me into the teacher I am today.
I think of the word mentor as a verb—something I do rather than something I am.
Judith certainly stands among those mentors. As does my high school English teacher, Barbara Macintosh, and my high school social studies teacher, Buzz Wemple. I actually wrote about both of them earlier this year during the March Slice of Life blogging challenge. In college, too, there were important mentors, an English professor whose zeal I still try to emulate; an education professor who answered our questions with his own, forcing us to wrestle with our assumptions; and later, a cooperating teacher who provided the necessary guidance and allowed me the necessary freedom to find my own teacher voice. Today, I am fortunate to work with talented colleagues who challenge, inspire, and yes mentor me in countless, significant ways.
And for that I am incredibly grateful.