Gandalf. Dumbledore. Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Throughout contemporary and classic literature and film, mentors have guided heroes on their quests and provided support, wisdom, and a few wisecracks along the way. This is an archetype that crosses cultures and time periods and transcends the boundaries of fiction into reality. Most teachers can think back to a teacher, a professor, or a colleague who helped guide their way. Perhaps your mentors were like mine: the supportive cooperating teacher who modeled a passion for engaging students in conversations or the administrator who created possibilities for improving my teaching practice and offered wisdom as I developed into a stronger teacher leader.
Harvard professor Gregory Nagy traces this archetype of a guide back to Homer’s The Odyssey when Athena appears to Telemachus in the form of Mentor to offer help while Odysseus is galavanting around the Mediterranean. He explains that Telemachus is disconnected and unsure of his role in life. Athena aims to reconnect Telemachus with his family legacy and insert a “mental strength…the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action.” Breaking down the word “mentor” to the Greek menos, Nagy notes “menos is mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.”
But how does this happen? And how do mentors give mental strength and influence the lives of educators during journeys that are a far cry from The Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings?
Dr. Julie Yamamoto, principal at Ridgevue High School in Nampa, Idaho, reflected on her own mentors Al and Lee McGlinksy who wanted the best for her:
“First, I knew they loved me. They could also see where my path could take me,” she said. “Everybody needs someone who can come alongside them at the same time to be a lamp to their path.”
In addition to lighting the path, Julie explains that a mentor can be like a tuning fork who can tap into someone’s needs through questioning and exploring possible moves. However, both parties need to be willing to explore the path together.
Nicholas Nigro, in his book The Everything Coaching and Mentoring Book, explains, “A mentor performs the role of prudent counselor, dispensing advice on career paths, and offers beneficial problem-solving hints on the more immediate matters of the work at hand. Mentors base their instruction on real life experiences.”
I saw this in my work with Julie when she was my assistant principal at Vallivue High School and lived it as a student and beginning teacher with Janis Mottern-High at Twin Falls High School.
I have bright memories of sitting in Janis’s class as a senior in high school as she sat in front of the room, fluffed her fiery red hair, and invited us into the worlds of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Janis, who embodies the Shakespeare quote “Though she be but little, she is fierce,” was quick to share her traveling experiences to help us better understand England and English history as well as come alongside students to discuss writing and literature. These one-on-one conversations were a way for her to develop empathy with and for students as well as guide students through challenging literature by helping them make personal connections. She supported her students not through lecture, but through conversation.
Janis was one of my cooperating teachers during my student-teaching semester as well as a mentor during the first years of my career at Twin Falls High School. I saw a lot of the ways she interacted with students in the way she mentored me and other early career educators. She started with building a relationship, something we know to be one of the crucial components of supporting any learner.
While building a rapport with someone, “it’s important to know that what is comfortable and confident for one teacher is different for another,” she says. Through this, one is able to help someone build up a sense of confidence and then also help a new teacher look for areas that can be strengthened or to zero in on areas a mentee is passionate about. For Janis, this process of helping a mentee move in a different direction from their mentor can be “joyous.”
But this can be a challenge: providing heavily scaffolded support while also being in tune with someone’s needs and helping the mentee develop his or her own voice.
“Utilize your life story and myriad experiences as a backdrop in your mentoring activities, but don’t ever ask that your mentee be a carbon copy of you. Your mentee is a unique individual with unique talents who needs to follow a unique course in life,” Nigro says.
A mentor must be able to offer guidance while also looking for ways to let someone experiment and question their own practices. While a mentee might start by modeling the actions of a mentor or more experienced teacher, watching him or her begin to gain confidence and stand more solidly can be gratifying. Just as mama birds nudge their babies to fly and parents support their children to be able to stand and walk on their own, mentors must be willing to support and guide with the flexibility to let their mentees walk on their own.
So, what happens when our mentees have flown out of the nest, so to speak? Alternatively, what happens when we are the mentee and feel like we don’t necessarily need the guidance of a mentor? In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes about the time he was “no longer an apprentice [and] no longer needed mentors.” He keys into the moment we make a shift from mentee to mentor, a moment that can be thrilling and jarring. Suddenly, we are the one who can provide advice and guidance. What a responsibility!
At the same time, I would argue that there is always a need for a mentor, regardless of our paths and time in our careers. Anyone who has ever switched schools, grade levels, or subject areas knows that those first few months (or the first year) can feel rough, and it’s easy to feel like a first year teacher again.
Nine years after I began teaching, I moved towns and started teaching at Vallivue High School in Caldwell, Idaho. In the nine years I had been at Twin Falls High School, I thought I had a lot of things figured out: I had taught and developed multiple ELA courses including advanced and honors courses, advised the newspaper, and honed leadership skills as a department chair. I’d also mentored new teachers. My first year at Vallivue High School felt like all of my years of experience had disappeared. I had new preps, I was in an unfamiliar community, and I had to adapt to a new school culture. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Thank goodness there were supportive teachers in the English department who could offer advice on curriculum and classroom management as well as a supportive administrator like Julie who would end up seeing the best in me and helping me to hone my classroom practices and leadership abilities through supportive and honest conversations and feedback.
Throughout our careers we might gain (or regain) confidence in our abilities, but can we ever claim ultimate expertise and shun further guidance?
“Are you ever the expert?” Janis asks. “If you’re perfect, what’s the point of being here? You might as well move on to another dimension.”
As we hone our skills as educators, there will always be a need for mentors, formal and informal. As learners, we can embrace the opportunity to be mentors while also embracing the opportunity to learn from mentors. We can build our own mental strength while also building the mental strength of others.
Brandon Bolyard is an Idaho Coaching Network coach in Region 3.