Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mentorship is a dare

It turns out that it is difficult to keep seventh grade students on task while a snake swallows a goldfish whole in the front of the classroom.

Student-teaching in a middle school was invaluable because goofy adolescents seem to dare their teachers more than other age levels. Middle school is that perfect blend of students appreciating risk and accepting those inevitable teaching failures. When I brought a small snake into a seventh grade English class to supplement our study of Aesop's Fables, it was more experiment than lesson plan.

While handling the small snake in class he got scared and bit my hand. It jolted me enough that I lost my grip and our scaly guest slithered through a sea of backpacks. The students standing on their desks screaming and pointing did not really help our snake posse track him down. Eventually, we managed to capture our lesson plan with an empty box, but it was not without drama. 

In the end, no people or animals were harmed (except the goldfish I guess) and I collected the most descriptive and powerful writing of the year. The classroom was electric that day.

That was the first time I got that unique teacher high I continue to chase every marking period.

My "teaching strategy" was also the target of criticism from a few students who thought we had inhumanely scared a snake under the guise of learning. They made good points and their speeches condemning my actions were articulated well. Other students broke through some walls and crafted poetry and impassioned narratives rich with detail.

This is the moment I point to when I talk about getting hooked on teaching.  It is a sacred breakthrough in education when a class truly acquires it - a blend of togetherness and chemistry where students bring out the best in their classmates and our best as a teacher. Once a teacher has that profound experience when a class evolves into a community and gels, the constant mission to shape a classroom into a robust learning environment is born.

With papers stacked to the ceiling and lesson plans that may as well have been scribbled on napkins, I knew right then that teaching was my calling. Teaching is still invigorating and exhausting at the same time.

The Teacher Who Dared Us to Be Great

My very first mentor Richard Mraz is the person I hold largely responsible for opening my heart to a fulfilling career in education. He dared to mentor six teaching interns that year and his involvement in my life has made all the difference in my career.

My mentor and friend, Richard Mraz
Michigan State University put him in charge of evaluating our growth throughout a year-long teaching internship. Richard kick-started my growth more than he evaluated it during my time at Owosso Middle School. He helped me discover teaching and he taught me what it means to truly care about young people. Most importantly, he helped me acquire a thirst to evolve as a teacher. He modeled a growth mindset and a positive culture of learning before those ideas were a thing.

Like so many of my good and bad days that school year, I called Richard to share the serpent experience. He laughed with me as I gave him the play-by-play. Richard had a way of incubating my enthusiasm and then encouraging me. With his support, a single idea would multiply into all kinds of new schemes. He took joy in my navigation and knowing he was invested in my success gave me the necessary freedom to fail.

Making Mentorship a Priority 

That was 15 years ago.

Now I am choosing to measure my success as a teacher in part by my influence on other teachers. Am I helpful? Have I taken a risk and served as a mentor? How well do I accept the help of others and open my mind to new approaches? How do I influence the education of our students beyond my classroom?

When I reflect on those questions I end up back at Owosso Middle School where my journey began as a baby-faced rookie wondering what in the hell I was doing.  When I tried to impart knowledge to a bunch of 12 year old kids I was reminded by my mentor that the learning had to be mutual. Richard had a knack for challenging me to re-think ideas on my own terms without telling me how poorly constructed those ideas were. He helped me reach higher and ultimately I was finding Mr. Gregory through the process. The good news is that the search continues.

The best mentors inspire.

Richard's brand of inspiration was subtle and unassuming. He cared deeply about our profession and our talks focused on finding human connections above everything and then applying pedagogy. His reach as a mentor was highlighted by his patience and the peace of mind he gained from more than 30 years in a classroom. He was a pro. My success as a beginning teacher was his success. He was invested in my growth. I picked up on the fact he cared about me at a self-absorbed stage in my life. Richard coached me to use my talents and my gifts to be a good classroom teacher and he understood that most of the essential skills needed as a professional required on-the-job training. He teamed with the lead teacher in the classroom and together they made my development a priority.

To this day, there is no one I want to share my exciting teaching days with more than Richard. I honor Richard's memory (he passed away more than a decade ago) by keeping students front and center. Even in my student-teaching experience when I was looking to merely get by from time to time, Richard pushed me to focus on what students needed, not what I wanted. He helped me become mindful before I even knew what being mindful meant.
Photo By Nick Gregory

Even now when I feel off, I think about some of the lessons Richard gracefully modeled. I loved learning with him by my side. In a career full of meaning, my relationship with Richard holds a special place as a lifelong treasure.

Those experiences with Richard are imprinted into my Teacher DNA. Regardless of how district policies, trends in best practice or teaching assignments change, my "genetic sequencing" as a teacher is firmly in place. Richard knew that many of those lessons I stumbled upon under his watchful eye would help me to eventually chart my own course. When I felt lost in my profession five years ago, I was hanging on to the idea that Richard is proud of me. Despite my insecurities and his death, he was still helping me push through and grow at a time when a part of me was ready to walk.

That's what the best mentors do - they help us find the tools we need to push through and grow. The best mentors care about people and they care deeply about our profession. The best mentors have a winning combination of the seven character traits below.

  1. Authenticity Wins - Having a strong sense of self takes time and reflection. Good mentors encourage others to be themselves. The adage recited to new teachers, "Don't smile until Christmas" is older than chalkboards and pointless. Good mentors don't waste time on mind games and silliness that diminishes the true value of our profession. Be real.  
  2. Always a Pro - Mentors are pros who encourage others in a quest that brings honor to the teaching profession. Being a pro is not about always being serious or maintaining appearances in an attempt to avoid mistakes. Being a pro is about serving students and families. I am talking about keeping the students as the focus and instilling an addiction to improvement in those around you.  
  3. Achieve Vulnerability - Being vulnerable is an achievement in our profession when you consider the attacks levied on K-12 education from all directions. I am speaking of achieving professional vulnerability - the kind that allows one to take risks, re-think values and test strongly held ideas with student learning in mind. Vulnerability, in the right context, is necessary in order to reach new levels of awesomeness. Live there. Learn there. Grow there. 
  4. Humility Breeds Confidence - It is easy for others to follow and want to be around you if they know that you know, 'It ain't ever about you. Never.'
  5. Listen to Learn - The art of listening is a necessary gift in our profession and listening is not simply an exercise, it is at the core of teacher improvement. The best learn how to listen with their hearts and mind.
  6. Sense of Humor  - Obvious, right. Laughter, especially at oneself, helps us maintain some perspective. Sometimes we need help getting there.
  7. Trust Conquers Fear - Building trust and reserving judgement just makes sense when going through the challenges we tackle in K-12 education. Trust makes it okay to fail and trust encourages learning from those failures.  
I credit Richard with helping me understand the value in building positive relationships when I was most impressionable. Above everything, relationships are still the most important aspect of my career. I am lucky. Everyday at Owosso Middle School I worked with a veteran pro (Teacher Shirley Andersen) and with Richard's support, I always knew I had mentors invested in my success.

It made all the difference then.

And now.