I stepped into my first full-time teaching gig at Orchard Elementary as a 4th grade teacher fresh out of the university and student teaching. After one full day on the job, I realized how much I still had to learn. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the best way for me to connect what I learned from studying and what my real-life students needed from me was by way of my colleagues who had been through it all. They were my mentors – Mr. Poulson and Miss Dobson and Mr. Rasmussen and so many others. They had a gentle way of helping me laugh at my mistakes and learn something better going forward. They were natural mentors, and they taught me that it was a natural part of my profession to help others grow.
We may underestimate how much it means to our colleagues when we support and encourage them or offer a new perspective at a challenging time. What we provide can mean everything to someone who’s new to our profession and struggling to figure out which way is up.
I used to think that mentors had to be old and wizened, kind of like Yoda with the wisdom of Socrates, the patience of Job and the heart of Mother Theresa. Thankfully, it’s ok to just be a garden-variety human being with experience and a willingness to share. Mentoring—whether in the classroom or within our union—makes me feel like I’m paying it forward.
Some estimates tell us that as many as 40 percent of new educators leave our profession within the first few years. But if they have mentors, they are much more likely to stay on the job. (We also provide a host of resources to assist new educators. Check them out.)
In those early days, it was my mentors who taught me that problems were unavoidable; mistakes were inevitable; and that what made us professionals was that we had the responsibility to reach out to colleagues and find creative solutions to whatever was going on.
Later in my career, I had the opportunity to mentor my newer colleagues, and I would bet that today they are reaching out to the novices in their schools. There are also many programs in which retired teachers mentor those who are new to the field.
“Teaching is a very complex profession. It’s full of all kinds of subtleties and nuances. It’s something you learn on the job,” James Rowley, the James Leary Professor in the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton, told NEA Today a few years ago. “If we’re going to be learning on the job, we know it’s important to have someone guide and direct us.” Rowley wrote a book about skillful mentoring: Becoming a High-Performance Mentor.
When it comes to mentoring our students, we fulfill that role all the time as college professors, teachers, psychologists, school bus drivers, custodians, financial-aid administrators and more. Research shows that when young people are mentored, they are 52 percent less likely to skip school and 81 percent more likely to participate in an extracurricular activity. Mentored students also have fewer referrals for behavioral issues.
Rebecca Fawns-Justeson, associate professor at California State University, Chico, wrote recently in Thought & Action that when she’s tempted to cut back on reaching out to students to focus more on her many other responsibilities, she reminds herself that mentoring is her most important job.
“To me the real purpose of our work is to mentor our students, to help them along their path to becoming thoughtful, engaged, self-aware citizens who are fully able to make choices that reflect their most cherished values; choices that lead them to a meaningful and satisfying life, however they define it,” wrote Justeson, who also directs her university’s Rural Teacher Education Residency Program.
Mentoring our students is less about our specific jobs titles than our calling to provide every student with the resources to learn in a supportive environment.
Melvin Bland knows this firsthand. He’s a custodian at Goodnight Elementary School in Pueblo, Colo., but he will stop what he’s doing to listen to a student. “Many of the kids come from broken families, or they live with their grandparents,” Bland said in a recent NEA Today article. “They may see me as someone with experience who cannot really tell them what to do but can discuss different ways to handle things.”
Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid, such as projecting or own agendas on those we are mentoring, or failing to see them as separate from ourselves. But we can learn how to avoid those snags, especially when we realize that mentoring relationships, like all relationships, change over time.
During National Mentoring Month, take some time to reflect on mentoring, what it’s meant to you and what it can mean to those around you, whether they are students or colleagues. It’s the Circle of Mentoring—and we all can benefit from it.