Posted by Ariel Sacks on Thursday, 05/01/2014
It's spring: I feel alternately exhausted from the year that's moving quickly to a close, and a sense of renewal that takes its cue from the seasonal weather and the end of winter. It was a perfect time to visit my mentor, Madeleine Ray, who advised me during and beyond my time as a graduate student at Bank Street College. Seeing her teach, and being reminded of her values and sensibilities, always feels a bit like going home. And that makes me want to share some advice, especially meant for beginning teachers who plan to stay in teaching for a substantial amount of time.
Try to find a true mentor, and keep in touch.
There will be many educators who will help you learn things, big and small, deliberately or unknowingly, about teaching. An eye for picking up on these lessons and techniques when they come your way is very important. But to find a mentor, you have to find someone whose teaching you deeply respect, whose methods help you fulfill the higher purpose you have for being an educator. A mentor inspires and equips you to be the educator you set out to be.
I believe that all teachers want the best for their students, but we do not all value the same things in our students. Values are a part of teaching and teaching methods derive from a combination of the needs of students, the values of the teacher, and the values and conditions of the larger organizations and systems in which we carry out our work. If teaching is a calling, then we must take time to understand what we feel called to do and why.
A mentor should be someone who understands why you teach and who helps you connect your teaching methods with this purpose. If you are lucky enough to find someone who helps you do this, talk to this person a much as you can! Keep in touch. It's okay to take the initiative and let someone know you want to learn from them. It's a good skill.
In addition to all of the opportunities you'll have to learn from colleagues in the teaching field, you'll also have many pressures that come from outside your classroom and collegial networks. These pressures may or may not move you in the direction of your goals as a teacher; they may or may not be in line with your educational values. If you succumb to every pressure, you surely won't meet your goals, because these pressures are almost always shifting and competing with one another, for reasons that have little to do with students, and everything to do with the adult world.
When the pressure becomes at odds with your values and goals, as an educator who came to the profession to stay a while, to humble yourself and learn to make a difference for students and their communities--that is when you'll appreciate the opportunity to talk with someone you consider a mentor. You'll appeciate being in the presence of a teacher who has weathered the storms longer than you have, and who has stayed true.
Then you can quote Isaac Newton and say, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
[photo: Madeleine Ray teaching her Children's Literature course at Bank Street College. She always makes students form a circle, and she always begins class sharing unusually neat books].