Several years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a short book that touched the hearts of many readers by reminding us that everything we needed to know in life we learned in kindergarten. You may remember his poetic excerpt from that book. The very first line read, Share everything.
When I reflect on my experiences as a mentor today, I am reminded of the power of his ideas. We too should share. We should share our materials, our time, our experiences, and our optimism. The wonderful thing about sharing is that receiving is implicit in the bargain.
Sharing our Materials:
As mentors we should share our materials, and when I say share, I mean truly share. Share the binders of weekly syllabi, quizzes, introductory notes, plans, projects, and timelines. I cannot assure fellow mentors that new teachers recognize or appreciate that those binders or electronic files contain countless hours of research, effort, and revision—and I don’t think it really matters.
What matters is that new teachers will have in their possession something tangible to build upon. In my experience, new teachers do not need any more theory or suggestions in their first years; they need practicality. Examples of effective lesson units that work offer exactly that, practicality.
The good news is that in sharing those files, I benefit as well. I’m forced to assess their merit. I need to ask myself as I pass them along, Is this work really exemplary? Is it worth modeling? Is it timely, relevant, and effective?
We all know the old adage, If you want to learn something well, teach it. I believe in the efficacy of that adage. The more mentees I assist, the more opportunities I have to improve my craft. I learn more about my grasp of given material, my motivations for selecting particular areas of study, and my methodology.
Sharing our Time:
As mentors we need to share our time. Too often we make the mistake of suggesting we have time for mentees by saying something along the lines of, “Please call on me whenever you have any questions or concerns.” Surely we shouldn’t be surprised when we are not taken up on such half-hearted offers.
I have cultivated the most productive relationships with mentees when I engage in face-to-face conversations with new teachers on a regular basis. Anyone who has taken mentoring seriously knows that mentoring is much more than assisting with classroom instruction and classroom management. Mentoring involves introducing a school ethos, assisting young teachers as they work with administrators and finesse their own sense of professionalism. This cannot be discussed in an email exchange or a quick chat in the hallway.
I find that when I invest time in an honest exchange of ideas, the mentee and I build a rapport, and that rapport soon leads to trust.
Several years ago, a mentee shared a difficult encounter she had with a colleague. After listening to her explanation of events, I offered the three options I thought possible for resolving the situation. She expressed her gratitude for my ideas, and then she concluded by saying that before she moved ahead with any option she was going to wait until the next morning to act. She knew that she needed time to process the events and determine how she felt.
Of course she was right; she had hit on the essential point, and I told her so. She did not need me to solve the problem, and I did not need her to handle the situation as I would have handled it. As a mentor, I needed to listen, and as a mentee, she needed to feel supported.
We both benefited from that exchange. She was allowed to vent her frustrations and not be judged, and I was reminded that we should all think before we act. Being a mentor does not mean I shape teachers to act as I would. It means I need to help them trust their own intuitions and abilities.
Sharing Optimism and Balanced Perspective:
I genuinely love my work as a classroom teacher and department chair. I think this satisfaction and pride in my work help me when mentees, as they inevitably do, become crestfallen when reality falls short of idealism. Students let them down, administrators disappoint, and parents pose challenges.
It is natural for new teachers to grouse and complain with their mentors. As a mentor, I need to listen and validate those concerns. Then, I need to help the new teachers with perspective. It is my task to remind mentees that no institution is perfect: leaders are not perfect, students are not perfect, and we are not perfect. But, the worst thing I could do would be to grouse with them. The last thing I would ever want to do as a mentor is diminish a new teacher’s optimism. I want to honor that enthusiasm and vision that new teachers bring to the profession and help them cultivate it. In doing so, I maintain a bit of the enthusiasm I felt when I entered the classroom for the first time.
Share, share, share.