Tag Archives: mentor

Re-vision

I was an English major in college, so I can’t even begin to think about how many papers I have written over the course of a lifetime, especially when I factor in that I also took more than my fair share of other Humanities courses. But being the procrastinating creature that I am, it was very typical that I would write papers the night before or in the hours before they were due in class. My strategy was that I could produce one quality page an hour, so if I started a five-page paper at midnight for a class that didn’t start until 11am the next day, no stress. What I didn’t comprehend until later was that I was mashing all of the steps of the writing process – you know, the ones I would eventually have to teach high school and middle school kids as an English teacher — into one: brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit all at the same time. I’d jot down quotes I liked from the text or texts (that’s how I do outlines), ponder them, start writing, re-read, make some changes, and eventually jump back to the beginning and write an introduction with a thesis once I had some paragraphs written. A weirdly advanced skill.

When I became a teacher, I learned quickly that teaching students how to revise their own writing was tough. For a lot of students, producing a draft is hard enough. Revising is that much harder. Make changes? Re-read my work to see if it makes sense before I publish it? Find a different supportive quote? Delete stuff? Ugh. Most of my students, in our first go-rounds of writing some kind of narrative or essay, would think that fixing some capital letters and punctuation was enough. I realized that I needed to make a clearer distinction, then, between revision and editing/proofreading. Revision, I told them,  literally means “the act of seeing again” — that is, to look at your work through fresh eyes and make changes for the better as needed.

Lately I think I’ve been in the process of revision for the draft of my life and probably always will be. When I was fresh out of grad school and in my first year of teaching, I was completely idealistic and fully prepared to “teach to change the world,” as my grad program encouraged. I wanted to be someone who made a difference for that one starfish, as the parable goes. Thus I spent millions of hours at school, prepping and grading and figuring out how to plan curriculum, and I did that alongside fellow young teachers who were equally dedicated. And for a long time I believe that we did make a difference for more than one starfish, just by being teachers who really cared. Many of our students became the first in their respective families to graduate from high school, and some went on to finish college. Some are still working on finishing their college degrees and grinding away with gusto. By being at our school, many students started to revise their views of their lives and what was possible.

In my sixth year of teaching, I became really unhappy. I still deeply loved my students and pushed them to reach for my very high expectations. In fact, I will always remember one of my sixth graders sharing out her reflection (a requirement of mine on the day that they turned in final drafts): she said she felt so proud of herself for turning in work that looked like a college student’s, as she had taken the time to type it and format it exactly as I had shown them. It was, in retrospect, a very rewarding year from a teaching perspective. But around this time of the year — February — I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go back in the fall. I loved them, but I loved myself and valued my own well-being more. I couldn’t go back to school and be what I call a paycheck teacher; I believe that all students deserve more than that. So I had to start revising: what was I going to do now?

I think that leaving that position behind gave me fresh eyes. I had to think about what my priorities were in life and what other directions or paths I could take. Go back to school? Try to have kids while contemplating a career move? Do nothing for a while and just work retail for fun? In the end, landing in a mentoring position was right for me because I could still have an impact on students by working with new teachers. It was sort of an exponential increase in size of impact, because now I was working with three teachers who each had at least four different sections of students. A revision of my role in education.

Since we moved, though, that position only lasted for one school year. Now I am in an elementary school and essentially working as a mentor, even though that is not my official title. I have spent my time there since September constantly trying to revise my role and shape it into something that fits me and the school. I don’t think I’ve fully figured it out yet, but it’s getting there. It’s evolving. Who knows how/if they’ll want me back next year, or if I will want to be there next year.  In the meantime, I’m still trying to revise how I see these next few years of my life here in Alaska. Are we going to be lifers here? Will one of us stumble across an opportunity that will move us somewhere else in the world for a time? Will we — fingers crossed — start to raise a family in the next few years? I’m trying to look at myself and my life with fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the real reason why I’m writing now.

What I know for certain is that revision, or re-vision, is not just about writing a paper. So far, I’m thinking that the 30-year-old draft of me is solid, but we all know that good is the step before better or great.

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The Secret Word

As a child of the ’80s, I loved watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on Saturday mornings. I especially loved the “secret word” that was a cue for everyone in the Playhouse to scream every time someone said it. I am convinced that in the past 24 hours of my life, the secret word has been mentor.

1. In yesterday’s local paper, there was an article explaining how Big Brothers Big Sisters is trying to quantify the impact of high-quality mentoring.

2. Toward the end of the school day yesterday, one of the veteran teachers stopped me in a moment of stress. She said she mentored the teacher next door and needed some help around approaching a difficult conversation that they’ve been trying to have during their last few meetings. I said, “So you as a mentor kind of need a mentor right now?”

3. I had a great, long-overdue catch-up phone session with my mom yesterday afternoon. She always asks about work, and I explained to her some of the positives of late and how I think my role has really evolved into the mentoring position that I was looking for before we moved to AK.

4. Last night was Dinner League, our regular Wednesday night curling session followed by a home-cooked dinner with everyone there. I was chatting with a fellow curler who is a high school history teacher up here, and I asked her if she had heard of some of the different free online history resources available. While I was describing the site, she stopped and said, “Hey, are you a content mentor?”

5. This morning I wrote an email to my most recent mentors, the two women who led all of my professional development training last year in northern California. I just wanted to thank them again for being such professionals and role models, masters of the art of mentoring. One of them responded immediately, and she wrote that she has a feeling we will work together again someday. I love that thought!

6. The veteran teacher (see #2) and I met this afternoon in a follow-up conversation to strategize about how best to mentor all of her mentees (she has three). I explained that I am a total dork and love talking about mentoring as a practice, so she can tap my shoulder whenever needed.

7. Icing on the cake? I’m catching up on last night’s episode of Top Chef this evening, and the episode is titled “Mentors.” Whaaat? For the elimination challenge that determines the Final Four, each contestant had to cook a dish that would make their respective mentors proud. Yes, all of the mentors appeared as a surprise to the contestants, and all of them — mentors and mentees alike — were very emotional seeing each other.

Conclusion: The secret word is mentor.  [insert long, extended, joyful scream here] (Did I mention that currently my sister is mentoring a high school student? And that one of my best friends is a life coach (aka a mentor)?) My ears are peeled for the next Secret Word; I only hope it wil be as obvious as this one.


Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah

I have been thinking about a meeting that I will have  with my principal and the Executive Director in the morning. We are going to start a conversation around staff morale — which has been noticeably low of late — and how best to address it for the remainder of the semester and into the following school year. The topic has been on my mind since we scheduled the meeting last Thursday, but I still need to do some paperwork prep for it, too.

Anyway, I watched almost all of the NFC championship game today, with the exception of overtime. By the time I stopped watching (because of an employee appreciation dinner for Husband’s work), the score was tied at 17-17. In my heart I knew that it was unlikely the 49ers would pull off the win because the momentum just hadn’t been in their favor for most of the second half. But it got me thinking a bit about Jim Harbaugh and all that he has accomplished with this team in his rookie season as an NFL coach — taking a team to 3 points shy of a Super Bowl trip ain’t too shabby. Sure he wears his heart on his sleeve — and some may find that obnoxious — but his players feel his heart and his love for them and the game. Who wasn’t moved by Vernon Davis scoring the game-winning touchdown last week and collapsing into his coach’s arms while crying in triumph and relief? I don’t think every person who has ever played a sport has had that kind of relationship with his or her coach. Jim Harbaugh believes in his team, believes they are good and will work hard to be better, believes that he has the ability to lead them. In turn, his players respond.

Last week at my 6am Crossfit class, there were only two people completing the workout — a grueling one called “Chelsea” in which the athlete is expected to perform 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats on the minute. Every minute. For 30 minutes. I had scaled it back for them to a 3-6-9 rep scheme, which allowed them anywhere from 15-25 seconds of rest per minute depending on how fast they were moving. The woman in the class made it through about 15 rounds before she said she was finished. I said, “No, you’re not. Rest for 2 minutes and jump back in.” And you know what? She did come back for another 6 or 7 rounds. The man in the class not only completed every single round, but when I called out last minute, he smiled and said, “Full round this time.” So here he was, exhausted, legs and shoulders on fire, and he was smiling and giving himself an extra challenge. I did the last round with him, and when it was over he was grinning like an idiot — as was I because I was so excited for and proud of him –and we did the super high-ten. I know that this is why I love athletics and sports in general, because there are few things more satisfying than watching people do more than they thought they ever could and push beyond physical and/or mental limits. Whatever I had been saying to him throughout the workout (“you’re going strong”/”make every rep count”/”your goal is 30 seconds per round”/etc) kept him motivated, and he knew that I knew he was going to be successful.

I will have these thoughts in mind tomorrow during my meeting. And I’ll be asking them (and myself) this question: How much do you believe in your team? Whether your team is your family, your spouse, your players, your staff, whomever… how much do you believe in them? And how much do they know that you believe in them? Because there’s no telling how much people can do and how hard they will push themselves when they can trust that their leaders are behind them 100%.


For Love of an Owl

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” – Galileo Galilei

My first owl was a green bag tag that Sister gave me years ago; it may have been way back in 2004 when it was my first Christmas out of school and as a working adult. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the whole owl motif, though at this point owls are so trendy it’s ridiculous. Nevertheless, I actually bought myself an overpriced purple leather owl key ring from Coach as a present to myself before leaving California last year. For the record, I am also convinced that my goddaughter (my brother’s youngest child) is part owl, with her wondering, round, dark brown eyes and sharp observation skills — especially for a 2 and 1/3 year old.

I bring up the subject of owls because they so often symbolize wisdom (as in the goddess Athena), and in the conversations I’ve had this week, the concept of mentoring has come up again and again. Last year I was not in the classroom as a teacher; I was working with 1st and 2nd year secondary teachers who were working on clearing their credentials. And it is possible that I learned more about teaching when I was working as a mentor than when I had my own English classroom. Mentoring gave me space to have a broader vision of the classroom lying within the context of a school and to spend time observing the relationship between a teacher and her students. Although the year started with me sharing a lot of my own ideas around teaching with my mentees, the year ended with me acting as a sounding board for their reflections and questions. We grew into our roles as colleagues after spending the first half of the year in the roles of “more experienced teacher” and “new teacher.” In the world of education in particular, mentoring teachers is such a crucial part of retaining and growing professionals, and I wish there was more of it… or at least more of that mentality within schools. What would it look like if a principal truly mentored the teaching staff? Or if teachers really saw themselves as mentors to their students? In my dream universe, everyone — teachers and students both — would be constantly moving through cycles of growth and reflection throughout the year, moving toward become masters of their craft and/or subject.

When one of my best friends and former English teacher colleague was asked to mentor a very experienced math teacher several years ago, he was worried. He expressed a concern to his principal that he would not have enough knowledge to share, that he would end up learning more from the math teacher than vice versa. And his principal gently reminded him that his attitude of humility was exactly how we enter into true mentoring relationships. I love this anecdote, as it serves as my own reminder that mentoring others is not about pouring knowledge into their heads; rather, it is about guiding individuals to recognize and develop the skills that already lie within them. It is the magic of helping another to acknowledge her gifts and strengthen her areas of improvement. Inevitably, mentees can also bring out the best in the mentor’s ability to listen and nurture. While it can be a very difficult relationship to navigate and more than challenging for both people involved, working through that is a necessary part of personal growth.

I am ever so grateful to the mentors — both official and unofficial — who have been part of my life. Teachers, coaches, professors, colleagues, friends. Always someone near me to deepen my thinking about my teaching practice or my life. Always someone to hold up a mirror to my own thoughts to allow me to see them more clearly. Find a mentor. Become a mentor. Watch your life grow and change right in front of you because you willed it so.