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.



  • Bill Ferriter

    Ariel wrote:

    Ariel wrote:

    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.   


    I love that you wrote this, Ariel, because this is me:  I’m the dischord guy in my school — always looking to challenge and prod and nudge and poke around the edge of any initiative, program or practice.  

    And I gotta tell you that it’s RARELY well received.  People don’t see dischord as something to embrace.  They see it as a threat.  And those of us who question become dissenters in their eyes. 

    Long story short:  Dischord matters.  It’s what drives learning.  See: Hegel and company.

    Hope you’re well.  It’s been awhile!

  • DeidraGammill

    Antagonists as mentors?
    To piggyback off of Bill’s great response, I’d like to pose this question. Should mentors strive to be antagonists in order to force growth? Should it be deliberate rather than incidental?

    The teacher who served (unwittingly) as my “mentor” the past six years is actually someone with whom I’ve never gotten along with, nor have we seen eye-to-eye on issues pertaining to our classrooms, district, or national policy. Because she served as department chair (still does, but I’ve moved on), disagreements either ended with me being forced to toe the line, or with me determining to do what I felt was right for my students and being subversive if necessary in order to accomplish my goals.

    I’d never thought of her as a mentor figure until I wrote a piece for my TLI experience that examined leaders I admired. It was then that I realized just how much she had forced me to grow as a professional. Even though I often felt “shut down” and “dismissed” in our department, she forced me to fight for the things I wanted. In that fight, I had to be articulate AND able to back up my ideas with research. I felt like I was still on the losing end most of the time, but she forced me to grow, to become tougher (in the early days, I’d go back to my classroom and shed bitter tears in my anger and frustration; last year I’d go back to my classroom, curse her creatively using awesome vocabulary words, then dig in and find examples/best practice/research to support my ideas, even if only to satisfy myself).

    Ironically, I found a word document last night, one from July 2010. It was actually a color-coded, 8-page conversation she and I had about project-based learning and using multiple measures for allowing students to express their learning. She had written me a lengthy letter after a summer planning session in which we had come to verbal blows once again. I answered by inserting my thoughts directly into her letter, and we were off. As I read, I felt somewhat vindicated. Everything I pushed for in 2010 can now be found in the Common Core. Ha! But more importantly, I realized just how much she forced me to grow, especially since I was putting my ideas in writing (which makes for a different kind of argument than a verbal one).

    I’ve written this lengthy comment simply to make an observation: traditionally, we think of mentors as being those who nurture us, who help us grow, who encourage us along the way. But I wonder if our antagonists, the ones who keep our passion for teaching & learning constantly boiling in response to conflict, don’t serve as better teachers in the long run. I worked harder to defend my ideas on education and what students needed when I was hell-bent on proving her wrong, harder than I ever did for someone who made me feel safe and appreciated.

    All of the best heroes became the men/women they are as a result of the conflict with their arch-nemesis (even if that enemy was internal). I believe there should be balance – we need positive role models and colleagues – but do you think there’s a place for deliberate conflict in a mentoring type role, if that antagonism is deliberately done to force growth? Is there a name for this kind of role? (No, Sado-masochist is not an appropriate school term!!) Just thinking out loud here. 🙂

  • ArielSacks

    Push pull in learning

    Bill, I loved reading your comment, and I would love to be your colleague at school! I think the key thing is that the questions and concerns you bring come from a place of experience and drive to truly help students learn (rather than just people who are just cranky about anything new)–and this is often threatening, because policies are so often not truly coming from that place.

    Deidra, that’s an interesting question. I think learning and mentorship can look many different ways. As a teacher, I’m inclined to believe that we can push students outside their comfort zones without being antagonistic, and I think that happens in mentor-mentee relationships as well.  Learning is not always comfortable, and we shouldn;t strive for that whether we are the mentor or the mentee.  I so think your story illustrates the value of the adult skill of being able to learn from all relationships including ones that we don’t choose and those that are are antagonistic.