Mentoring Isn’t a Program. It’s a Culture

#theteachersjourney #teachbetter #edumatch @cpoole27


cropped-add-a-little-bit-of-body-text-12.pngMentoring is one of the most critical aspects of building the education profession and ensuring both new and existing teachers are successful.  Yet most schools look at mentoring as a list to be crossed off.  Yes, they will say they place a certain level of importance or take pride in their “mentoring program”, but the reality is, they are just putting an “X” in the box for their legal requirements.  I am sure this last statement has offended some people.  Good.  The vast majority of education does mentoring all wrong and it has been contributing to some serious issues in education, specifically, teacher burnout.

Teaching, as I have said many times, lends itself to being potentially isolating, lonely, and overwhelming.  You are in a room without other adults for most of the day making thousands of decisions every hour that will have significant ripple effects on everything. When you are a new teacher you typically don’t know very many people.  You are thrown into a school setting and told: here is your person.  You are assigned a mentor.  Sometimes those mentors have training, however, what is the purpose of that training?

While listening to an interview in the Teach Better Podcast with Chuck Poole(I am in no way faulting Chuck here, just the very construct of the mentoring program), he described an early experience as a “teacher mentor” (I will use the term in quotations because despite that being the label, it is absolutely not what mentoring is supposed to be.) He said he struggled because he was still learning a lot himself.  What we all need to realize is that our experiences, especially the fresh experiences of being a new teacher, are incredibly valuable to those new teachers who need mentors.  He finished the discussion talking about how a teacher he had been paired with for the program more recently had asked him if he would continue to be her mentor even though it wasn’t part of the program anymore.  Everything about what he described sounded more like mentoring than most programs ever do, but this is the thing that made my heart sink as an educator and advocate for a stronger culture of mentoring in education.  While it was exactly what should happen, someone who built a connection with a mentor should continue upon that relationship, the fact that this teacher felt the need to ask for permission to continue being mentored beyond a specified program made my skin crawl.

Mentoring is not a program, it is a culture.  Either you are actively developing mentoring relationships both as the mentor and the mentee, or you are not.  Signing up for “mentor” does not make you one.  Also, assigning someone a mentor, no matter how great you are a reading people, is in no way the same as developing a mentoring relationship.  Like many things that people talk about in education, mentoring is not a scheduled activity, it is a relationship between two people.  As I have stated in The Teacher’s Journey, and I have borrowed from Col. Ray Kimball’s book, An Army Officer’s Guide to Mentoring, many times, mentoring is a relationship built upon mutual trust and respect in which the mentor has a difference in experience that the mentee needs.  The mentee also selects the mentor.

Mentoring programs conflate mentoring for coaching, or even worse, some failed hybrid of the two.  Programs (the vast majority) assign a mentor to a mentee and if you are lucky, the supervisor has considered more than just the content you teach.  They include scheduled times, checklists, specific skills and knowledge you need to give to another teacher, and sometimes the mentee is even required to pay the mentor a stipend.  Most programs undermine the idea that you are developing a relationship of trust and respect from the start.  They also instill in teachers the idea that you have ONE mentor and after your first year, or your 2nd, or 3rd in programs that are making more of an effort, that you no longer need one.  These narratives are not only false, but harmful.  We can and should be seeking out mentors at every stage in our career.  Mentors; Plural.  The number of things I do not know as an educator are vast and vary in depth.  The experiences I can draw upon from various educators whom I trust and respect should reflect the variance in what I need to learn.

I am constantly cultivating mentor relationships and making myself available to others to offer my experiences.  This is how mentoring culture should work.  It should not be assigned, it should be grown. We cannot expect to build a stronger profession if our concept of mentoring is built into a program rather than grown into our culture.

Put Yourself First

As educators, we have a lot of tendencies that are perhaps less common in other professions (I cannot speak for them.) One of the most common and widely accepted tenants that sweeps education, is that in everything we do, we should put kids first.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? And, in truth, there are a number of times when in education that it can hold incredible value. There are plenty of teachers that need to hear it because they disregard what’s best for kids on a regular basis to support their comfort, their routine, or their unwillingness to struggle through learning something new. If you haven’t been reading this blog over the past few years (I don’t blame you, it’s sporadic) I am not big on the Eduisms that flood educational social media and conferences. This one, like most, is rooted in an important concept, but as we reduce it down and strip away the context, it becomes toxic.

The real message, as I understand it, is not that we should always put kids before ourselves, or put kids needs before our own, but that as stakeholders in education, kids hold the highest priority. When planning academic experiences, we should focus on student needs as a top priority. When making policy decisions, understanding how students are impacted should be of paramount importance. When building a culture in the classroom, or a school building, student needs are vital.

But, often we reduce that rather weighty paragraph down to the simple phrase, put kids first. It looks good on a field of wavy grass with a sunny day behind you, but those words can be toxic to the health and culture of your staff.

Think about how many schools have a culture where teachers readily stay in the building until 5,6,7, as late as 10pm each night. They are putting kids first, working the extra hours to make their lessons just that much more incredible each day.

Or, think about the schools where teachers are stressed, focused so intently on their students needs that they neglect their own.

Raise your hand if you have neglected your personal needs, your family, or your some other important aspect of your life because you were putting kids first? Good, now put your hand down you look whacky raising your hand while staring at your device.

Mental health has become a major issue in education and in truth our world. I don’t know many teachers who have not shared publicly or privately a struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Yet here we are blasting to the world that the best teachers neglect themselves for the sake of others. We are telling all of these struggling people that if they try to take care of themselves before taking care of others, they aren’t good teachers.

My point is this, if we want teachers that can focus their instructional decisions based on what kids need, and we want teachers who are part of a culture that inspires and empowers learners toward their full potential, then we must have teachers that are healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually (for whatever you may take that to mean.) You can only operate on selflessness in the classroom for so long before you flame out and consume yourself.

Eduisms like these are part of an issue of bumper stickering our language to make it brandable. When it’s brandable, it spreads fast, and the hard work of building real understanding is often left by the wayside.

So take care of yourself. Put yourself first. I’m giving you permission (not that you needed it from me) to care about yourself first so that when your kids’ needs and well-being need to be met, you’ll be wholly up for the challenge day after day. By allowing yourself to put yourself first, I don’t mean to neglect change, ignore opportunities to learn, or not provide your kids with everything possible to help them. I simply mean that it’s ok to go home early sometimes, that it’s ok to not do that work on Sunday or to take a day off to go on your kid’s field trip. It’s ok. It doesn’t make you any less awesome as an educator. If anything, it will probably make you even more so.

Until the next inspiration hits, I leave you with my new favorite line for our world via Philip Larkin.