Perspectives Your Voice

Every Teacher Needs a Mentor

"Mentors push back and disagree with you, help you develop your educational voice, help hone your academic blade.”

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron

My mentor for the last 15 years, Liz Harrington, is retiring this year. She’s the one who, as our department chairperson, advocated for our weekly collaboration time and fought each semester to maintain our precious planning time as a department. Liz is the one I laugh with each Friday when we close our rooms at lunch and steal away for some caffeine. She’s the one who keeps my venting from becoming perpetual smog, and the one who swoops in with a last-minute lesson plan if I have to run and pick up my own sick kid. Liz is the first person I call to share my small victories and my embarrassing defeats.

YourVoice_Wolpert2Every teacher needs a Liz, and many have been lucky enough to have one. Mentorship, you see, is vital in our industry. Mentors aren’t just friends. They are amazing practitioners who pass on their knowledge through informal conversation and everyday modeling. They push back and disagree with you. They help you develop your educational voice. They help hone your academic blade.

At the beginning of our teaching careers, we are assigned mentors, perhaps through a formal induction program meant to help support our practice. (New teachers definitely need this scaffold!) An assigned mentor is one thing, but finding that person on your own who can challenge you, advise you and celebrate you, helps you embrace being reflective and encourages you to take risks.

According to Education Week, there are eight key qualities in an effective mentor. Inspired by that list and my own experiences, I would say that a good mentor:

  • Respects what you’re trying to do, and helps push you to solve the problem using a different perspective.
  • Listens, but knows when to hold up her hand to make you pause and listen.
  • Collaborates, shares the air, and lives for reciprocal learning.
  • Celebrates your successes.
  • Gives you a safe space to vent, air, complain, and feel shame.
  • Models best practices while still appreciating differences in teaching style.

I’ll also throw this out there: Newer teachers can be mentors, too. Mentorship doesn’t have to be based on seniority — it can also be about those who can help us rise in our practice and in our spirit. It isn’t all about content area and pedagogical expertise; it’s also about attitude and leadership.

The young teacher I was assigned to mentor through our induction program in California could have just as easily been my mentor the moment she set foot on our campus. She was talented, yes, but she was also a born learner who celebrated others’ successes, lit up at the thought of being challenged, and was honest with all those around her. I learned a lot from her.

If you are without a mentor at this time, seek to find one. (You may need to go off campus if you don’t find a viable candidate on yours.) We know that continued and consistent mentorship helps retain good teachers, improve their teaching practice, keep them engaged in the profession, and improve the practice of mentors themselves.

We should always seek out these special relationships, regardless of where on the seniority list we fall. Open your door to becoming a mentor. Raise your hand when formally asked to mentor others. Maybe it’s through an induction program or taking on a student teacher. Trust that you have something to give.

Which brings me back to Liz.

The way we pass on the wisdom of our own mentors, ensuring that their ideas and positivity are immortal on a school site, is through being available ourselves. After Liz retires, her classroom will be filled by a new teacher or a transferred teacher who might just need to know it’s fine to close your door and grab a few laughs on a Friday at lunch.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron, San Gabriel Teachers Association, is a middle school teacher and PBL coach. Copyright 2018 Edutopia.org; George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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