Expanding Definitions and Opportunities for Mentorship

Earlier this month I shared advice on the power of mentoring that comes from my own experience with an amazing advisor. Find a mentor and keep in touch, I wrote, and that will help keep you stay connected to your purpose for teaching. The comments I received in response to this were very interesting, and expanded my thinking on the range of mentoring experiences from which teachers benefit. It’s clear that most of us have found people to learn from in this profession, but the nature of these relationships and our needs vary.

Here are some ideas that came out of the comments:

Experienced teachers crave mentorship! Sandy Merz, veteran teacher and fellow CTQ blogger from AZ writes, “I wish there were more opportunities for veteran and accomplished teachers to be mentored, too. I would love to sit down and get coaching from someone who saw me teach regulary.” As a teacher finishing my tenth year of teaching, I totally agree–the value of mentorship does not decrease with time! 

For experienced teachers, it may be more challenging to find someone who can help you go further down a path, on which you’ve already made considerable progress. These relationships require skill and maturity. Joe Kirrane offers this: “As a Lead Mentor in my school I am reminded of the quote by Khalil Gibran, ‘The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his (her) wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.'” I believe this concept is true for teaching at all levels, but I think it may become more crucial for anyone working to “develop” more experienced teachers. 
Mentors can be like-minded educators–or not! Kris Giere describes finding mentorship in an unlikely colleague: “In many ways, she and I have had our differences in our pedagogical choices and views, but we both focused on helping students acheive their goals.  She challenged me in ways that a “comfortable” mentor may not have, and for that, I am grateful and have told her as much.” Reading this comment, I realized I too have had that experience with colleagues. It reminds me of a post I wrote a while back about the importance of having arguments about teaching practice. Finding educators who are willing to express and explore disagreement is more difficult than you might think. I have learned so much from engaging in “productive dischord” with fellow educators, unafraid to explore differences. This is a skill worth developing in teachers, especially as experience increases.   

Mentorship can go in both directions. One commenter, Jill, adds that, “Those you mentor will become your mentors in other areas.” So true! I see this in my own relationship with my mentor, and I notice how readers of my book, which shares a particular method for teaching literature, are now teaching me new ways to enlarge and enrich the method.  As Joe Kirrane later put it, “Mentorship is a two-way conversation between the Mentor and Mentee…Working as a Mentor has also helped to invigorate my own teaching with a postive exchange of ideas.” 

Is collegial friendship a form of mentorship? Vijay shares, “Looking back I wished I had a mentor in my early years of teaching – friends were a good source of ‘mentors’ and through sharing our experiences we grew from day to day. Humour was a best dose of medicine – when we recalled our students’ mistakes and our own ‘blunders’ we did along the way.” I think many of us can relate to this description of peer support during the early years of teaching. My first instinct is to say that this is not the same as mentorship, because I think of a mentor as passing on lessons previously learned and sensibilities developed through experience, reflection and endurance.  But I can’t deny that a great deal of learning occurs by sharing experience, questions (and humor) with a peer group. Cooperative learning groups, right?  I suppose this differs from a mentor-mentee relationship, but powerful nonetheless.

Develop a network of mentors. Mentorship can take a variety of forms, and technology is creating new channels for building these relationships. I thought this post by Coach G, “The Mentors You’re Assigned and the Mentors You Find” was great, because it described the need for a network of mentors who model different aspects of the multi-faceted work of teaching. Some of these things can be found in the mentors teachers may be assigned through their districts or teacher preparation programs, and others can be found or sought out independently.  I’ve found informal, virtual  mentorship in members of the CTQ Collaboratory, many of whom I’ve never met face to face, but have influenced my teaching.  More recently, I’ve connected with teachers on Twitter who have inspired me to ask new questions and try new things in my teaching. While virtual relationships may not offer everything that a face-to-face relationship does–especially when mentors are actually in the classroom with mentees–that does not seem to diminish the amount of learning and the strength of the connections that are formed online.

The possibilities for mentorship continue to expand.  As a profession, we would be wise to invest time to develop our capacity as both mentors and mentees, and consider the value and changing characteristics of mentorship across the career cycle.