Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Mentorship, For Teacher Appreciation Week

[The Celebrate Link-up is hosted by Ruth Ayres on her blog. Join in each Saturday with your own post about celebrations.]

This Teacher Appreciation Week, I'm thinking about my own teachers. I smile as memories come back to mind from primary classrooms, through middle school and high school and college.
Playing Sarah Josepha Hale in my 2nd grade play.
Begging to print banners in PrintShop during 4th grade computer club.
Interviewing a local farmer for my 8th grade speech about potatoes. (Yes, potatoes. Don't ask.)

But then, when I traced my story along its line to the present, I reached a place where conditions of the road changed, and the images of my "teachers" were those of my colleagues, those who mentored me and guided me towards the teacher I am today.

In August 2001, I started my first teaching job. I was so very green. I was lucky to be given a chance to stand on my own with a very real (in every sense) classroom of 5th graders. Sure, I was an attentive undergrad student, and some might say I have teaching in my blood, but I'm not sure any number of credit hours or characteristic in my blood would have prepared me for for all I encountered in my first year of teaching. I was enthusiastic, hopeful, optimistic, be truthful...naive.

I found the company of a more seasoned teacher as my neighbor and teaching partner when I began working with Gail. Though never formally designated as such, Gail quickly and naturally became my mentor. The hours of time she gave to me and will never see again would make for a stark infographic. She embraced me from day one, offering that anything that was hers was also mine. She quite literally equipped me with what I needed to get started: books and materials. She guided me through the important things I wouldn't have known were important when I was still learning how to evaluate and prioritize.

In collaborative work, Gail would pose a question to introduce a topic. And then she would listen to my thinking. And even though I'm sure she always spotted the holes or glitches in what I was saying, she was patient and thoughtful about leading me to find them for myself. She was careful about offering advice or about informing me of how things were to be done. If she didn't agree with the direction I was going or knew better, she didn't let on. Rather, she'd encourage me to try, and then would be there again with another chance to talk it out when I came back wondering aloud about what didn't work and what I could do differently.

When she wasn't listening to me and reflecting back my thinking, Gail mentored me by example. In her likeness, I learned that it's ok to build relationships with students, and you do so by respecting who they are as individuals. I learned kids need more than what is in the curriculum, and typically those needs are more important. I learned that even on my worst days, my kids depend on me and look forward to the consistency I offer. I learned it was ok to disagree with a colleague, and respect them still. I learned to seek first for understanding, then to be understood (particularly in relation to parent contact, but really, isn't this just good practice all around?).

Eventually I grew up from that baby-teacher I once was. I gained courage, perspective, experience, and maybe a little respect. Yet, Gail continued to mentor me as the years passed, in and out of the classroom. When I began to take risks in the greater school community--Drama Club, whole-school initiatives, committees and book studies--Gail was always there to back me up. She rallied behind my causes and supported my contributions. In doing so, she gave me confidence. Her actions said, "Go for it, You can do it, and I'm going to do what you need me to do, even if that's just to listen." This was always true. Through the last two years while I labored through my pursuit of National Board Certification, Gail spent a number of afternoons or evenings putting aside her work or piling my work on top of her own to assist, even though she had nothing to gain through my achievement. She would help me sort out my thinking, reflect, process, and gain and new or improved vantage point. She could help me to strip down all the frustrations and emotions around my entries and help me set back to it with hope and confidence. She would gently dig around inside what I was saying and coax those inner assets to the surface after they were sunk.

Gail retired from teaching last summer. In preparation for the inevitable, I had always trusted that I would be ready when the time came for our professional lives to part ways, and I was. It was ok. That's not to say I don't miss Gail (I most certainly do) or that her absence isn't felt (it most certainly is). But it was a gift to have Gail as a mentor for twelve years. I will always be appreciative of the way Gail walked with me to a place where I stand more assuredly; she was significant in my professional journey.

It was time for a new phase. The vacancy of Gail's position necessitated the hiring of a new teacher. Our school has rarely seen the opportunity to hire, with positions often filled through transfers. However, Gail's position was filled by a first-year teacher, fresh out of college and new as could be. And now guess what I get to do?


In August 2013, Katie joined our staff. And throughout the year, I've been given a special opportunity to repay the profession for the mentorship Gail offered me. Though I haven't been able to give the same quantity of time Gail always gave selflessly, I hope I reflect a likeness to the compassion, kindness, and patience Gail always showed. Her influence courses through me in many exchanges I have with my new neighbor. The beauty of this new phase is: by slowing down and listening to Katie, by talking with her and responding to her wonderings, I am deepening and strengthening my own practice. In her early career development, Katie is keeping me thinking and reflecting...and learning.

This Teacher Appreciation Week, I'm thinking about my own teachers. I smile as memories come back to mind. I appreciate the great fortune of a generous and talented mentor. And I celebrate the opportunities to return the favor, and to continue to learn in the process of mentorship.


  1. Yes, you were given a special opportunity and I am sure your relationship with Gail had a strong influence with your work with this new teacher this year. What would we do without good mentors? I love how you used this mentorship as a reflection for yourself too. That is what good teachers do! :)

    1. You know, Leigh Anne, my relationship with Gail definitely has had strong influence. It's a powerful thing, the way I have been able to almost have a second round of reflection on such important ideas. I feel like the best way to describe it is that we deliberately cycle back to learning for our students for repeated exposure, and through my developing relationship with Katie, I am getting to cycle through again. Rich.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. What a lovely tribute to an important mentor. Think how impressed she would be that you are passing on the knowledge and mentoring experience. Lovely post.

    1. Thanks, Carrie. Fortunately we are still able to catch up and visit because Gail lives near enough. I've shared some of this with her, as well as this link.