Recently I managed to orchestrate a personal trip to Target early on a Sunday morning. Just me and endless aisle of things I never knew I needed. As I walked in the store, I ran into my student teacher, Laura, from last school year. She is weeks away from finishing what I consider the most challenging year in any teacher’s life. The first year.
Teachers are constantly having “firsts,” far beyond that first year. First year in a new grade level. First year at a new school. First year with a new administrator. First year with a new curriculum. Let’s face it, this is a career where we are constantly having firsts. But that FIRST year, the one where you have your FIRST class, your FIRST first day of school, and you make all the mistakes for the FIRST time – that is something special.
As I finished my conversation with Laura I thought about the qualities of the teachers that served as mentors to me in my first year. And now, 16 years on, having served as a mentor many times for both fellow colleagues and college students in a teacher program, I fully appreciate all that was done for me when I first began teaching, and how much their passion and patience made a difference in my life, and the lives of my students.
Mentoring requires many of the same skills we need to be great teachers: patience, communication, willingness to relinquish control, and most of all, time. As we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d like to express my gratitude for these educators, my official and unofficial mentors, who during my first year in education as a 21 year old ripe out of college, shared these skills and qualities and made their mentorship so special.
1. Being a great mentor means you are willing to slow down.
It’s remembering that answers to questions that come naturally now, didn’t always: Why you chose this lesson objective; How you made the groups; Where the materials are located and how you plan to organize them. Deciding to serve as a mentor means dedicating time beyond the school day to help grow a great teacher, and therefore, this profession.
Mike Costello, my classroom neighbor, grade level colleague, and my official mentor my first year, spent hours after school helping me digest curriculum while listening to my “fresh out of college” ideas. Not only have I benefited from working with him, so has every student I have taught since.
2. Mentoring means consistently being a model of excellence.
Huzie Liu, my colleague and friend across the hall my first year, always, no matter what, exhibited grace. Even at the end of the worst of days, she was able to find the silver lining. She will always be my role model for what true professionalism looks like.
3. Not all mentors are assigned to you – some find you.
Megan Maurer, Mike’s Instructional Aide my first year, helped me organize materials, make copies, and just made school fun. She was a sounding board when I needed another set of ears and never once made me feel inadequate when asking a question.
Mentoring is hard work, and sometimes, it is not the right year. Maybe you have a young child, or your family has just moved, maybe you’re caring for aging parents, or you just need a year where to focus on yourself. That is OK. Knowing when to say yes to mentoring and when to say no, is important, too. Choosing to mentor well, takes time.
So if you have the time, and you are considering mentoring, think back to those who helped you in that first year. The ones who helped you stay afloat. The ones who explained all the acronyms. The ones who molded you into the teacher you are today. Show your gratitude by paying it forward. The education system depends on teachers who are not only dedicated to students, but dedicated to helping those who teach them.