On being a mentor

When I was a first-year teacher, like all first-year teachers in the New York City public schools, I had a mentor. She was a veteran teacher with 15 years of experience, assigned to me by my school to show me the ropes. She was caring and strict — a teacher who students feared, but also deeply respected because of her high standards.

My mentor and I met once a week, I think, but it may have been twice a month. A district-mandated binder filled with worksheets drove our conversations. All mentees back then got one. Like clockwork, during each session, we would sit in the 5th-floor teacher’s workroom and pull out another worksheet from the binder. The worksheets helped us talk about all sorts of things, none of which I remember now.

While my mentor helped me get through that first year, which is no small feat, I didn’t gain much insight into teaching from her. It wasn’t that she did a poor job or didn’t care. Looking back, I think she just relied too heavily on the binder instead of her intuition. We were there to discuss whatever the next worksheet prescribed. The whole experience felt staged, divorced from my first-year struggles.

In the end, did I get what I needed as a mentee in my first year of teaching? No. But to be fair, did I even know what I needed? Probably not. I was surviving.

Since that time, I have myself been a mentor on three different occasions. The first was in my seventh year of teaching. I did a horrible job. Why my school thought I was ready to be a mentor, I don’t know. Trapped in my own world, I made little time for my mentee. Our relationship consisted mainly of rushed check-ins in the hallway.

My second and third mentorships were better. The second came in year 14 and the most recent was last year. In both of these instances, I found myself far more secure in who I was as an educator and seasoned enough to understand my role as a mentor. Our conversations were meaningful and focused, reflective of my own curiosities when it comes to teaching and my mentees’ willingness to grow. The truth: Though I was the labeled the “mentor,” I may have learned more than either of my mentees.

Despite a growing inclination towards mentoring, I’m unsure about what it means to be a “good” mentor. Perhaps it’s to hold up a mirror for your mentee? Maybe it’s to listen carefully and identify key questions for them to dig into their practice? Maybe it’s to remind them that life can suck as a new teacher and that it gets better? As I lean into mentoring more over the next several years, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

What I do know is that supporting the next generation of teachers is really important right now. Under normal circumstances, teaching is hard to figure out. But pandemic teaching has added layers of complexity to our work causing even the most experienced teachers (like me) to question everything. I can only imagine what it’s been like for new teachers. All the more reason why they need someone in their corner.

Thus, this year I’ll be making space to be a mentor once again. I’ve determined that I’m all in on helping new teachers navigate the confusing early years of teaching. It could be that I’m getting old and seeking new ways to challenge myself, but part of me thinks back to the 5th-floor teachers lounge, my lifeless binder, and how unsatisfied I was during my first year. I hope that I provide a more worthwhile experience for my mentee this year.


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