“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.