A Lamp to Light the Path: Mentorship in Education

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.

Janis Mottern-High was not only Brandon’s senior English teacher. In the last 18 years, she became a mentor and friend, and they have had many great adventures attending English conferences.

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.


K-3 Have We Got News for You!


Have you ever wished and hoped for a library of resources, materials, and instructional supports designed with K-3 in mind AND housed in one location? So have we! Introducing the Idaho Coaching Network K-3 Library! (Click on title below)


In 2017, the Idaho Coaching Network added three K-3 Literacy Coaches with the intent of enhancing the support provided to primary teachers through our program and in the State of Idaho. One of the things that has come out of this collaboration is a digital space to house resources and strategies specific to the needs of our K-3 Educators. This website is designed to share those resources so they are available to teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, and curriculum directors across the state. Our coaches continue to add resources to this library, but we would like to include the expertise of our Teacher Leaders, as well! Do you have a strategy that really supports speaking and listening? Got a great technique for practicing fluency? Read an amazing article on close reading in the primary grades? These are just a few examples that would make great submissions. If you are interested in contributing, please see the Contribute page within the Library.


The Idaho Coaching Network will be sponsoring a one day literacy workshop designed to support balanced literacy instruction in the K-3 classroom. Workshops will be held during the month of July in Coeur D’ Alene, Boise, Twin Falls and Pocatello. The day’s agenda will include research-based strategies to develop phonics, fluency, vocabulary, writing, spelling and assessment in a workshop model. Please help us prepare for this workshop by completing the survey found here by March 1, 2018.

Speed Dating: The Power of Peer Feedback

Mindy Pals is a Food and Consumer Science teacher at Lewiston High School in Lewiston. Mindy is a Region 2 Teacher Leader who went through the Idaho Coaching Network program during the 2016-17 school year and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Check out her paper slide video that describes how to use a speed dating strategy to provide students with peer feedback, practice, and finally, a grade.

Literature Study: 3*2*1

Paul Collins is a 6th grade teacher for Moscow Charter School. He is a Region 2 Teacher Leader who went through the Idaho Coaching Network program during the 2014-15 school year, participated as a Returning Teacher 2016-17, and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Check out his paper slide video describing a literature study strategy that engages students in both comprehension and in identifying models of writing that they can emulate in their own writing.

The Power of Time

This post was written by Rebecca Crockett, a 4th grade teacher for the Orofino School District. Becca is a Region 2 Teacher Leader who went through the Idaho Coaching Network program during the 2013-14 school year, participated as a Returning Teacher 2014-15, and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Check out her infographic on the importance of reframing time as an opportunity! 

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Choice & Scaffolding: How We Learn Best

This post was written by Karen Forsman, a Curriculum Resource Teacher for the Lewiston Independent School District. Karen is a Teacher Leader who went through the Idaho Coaching Network program during the 2013-14 school year, participated as a Returning Teacher 2014-2017, and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Watch how she shares her view on the importance of choice and scaffolding. 


Meet our SDE Leadership

Scott Cook – Director of Academic Services

An Appreciative Inquiry Biography
Written by Region III K-3 Coach, Amy Brownlee

Scott Cook is the Academic Services Director at the Idaho State Department of Education. One of his responsibilities is overseeing the Idaho Coaching Network, its coaches, and the work done to support teachers in Idaho. Scott passionately advocates for teaching and learning by being an active participant on the coaching team. The team continually collaborates to promote growth and a forward momentum by asking difficult questions and having hard conversations that propel this work forward. Scott is fully present, working right beside us in this endeavor. His dedication to the success of kids is what propels him to continually ask, “Why?” and push for innovation in education backed by solid philosophy and research. Scott holds a deep belief in the collective impact of Idaho’s teachers: “I am rejuvenated by the integrity of the teamwork being done by deeply motivated educators…they believe what we are doing makes a difference.” He values and acknowledges the risks that his coaches and the teachers of Idaho take every day. It is his ability to listen and ask powerful questions that makes him an integral part of this work. As you meet and get to know Scott you will quickly appreciate his open mindedness and the value he places on the abilities and sacrifices of people working together for a bigger goal. He is an innovator, a listener, and a champion for what is best for kids and for educators.


Diann Roberts – English Language Arts / Literacy Coordinator

An Appreciative Inquiry Biography
Written by former Region III K-3 Coach, Jayna Eichelberger

Diann Roberts works relentlessly to support the Idaho Coaching Network’s team of Coaches by providing sanctuary and working behind the scenes while nurturing hope and possibility for the coaches and their work with teachers. Idaho Coaches count on Diann for her caring dedication and fierce commitment to literacy. Her depth of experience in classrooms feeds forward into her role as the ELA/Literacy Coordinator for the state of Idaho.

Diann’s servant heart was honed in the sixteen years she spent in the classroom where she cultivated close relationships with her students, which remain to this day. Students still call her to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, follow her on Facebook, and send letters. She has never forgotten the student voice in her current work with teachers and coaches. At her essence, Diann wants to make a difference and believes deeply in others.

Naturally serving others first, Diann is beloved by the coaches because she advocates for them, explains procedures, streamlines the work load, and enriches their lives with her positive perspective. She helps them as they construct the network to serve teachers, with the ultimate goal of making a difference in the lives of students. The significance of building caring relationships, which started in the classroom, echoes in Diann’s current work with the coaches.

When Diann is not tirelessly championing for the coaches, teachers, and students, you will find her on the ribbon of highway facing the horizon as she finds solace in “wind therapy” on her Harley.

Meet Our K-3 Coaches

Annie McMahon-3k-Coach

Annie McMahon – Region I and II, K-3 Coach

An Appreciative Inquiry Biography
Written by Region I Coach, Lisa Nance

Born in beautiful North Idaho, Annie is the youngest of 6 children, most of whom still live within driving distance, which is indicative of one of Annie’s core values: loyalty. Annie values her family time, and her life is fully integrated into the lives of her loved ones. This loyalty overflows into her work, and one of the first things she’ll share with her students is, ‘You are always one of my kids,” whether they see her in the hallway the next year or they run into her ten years down the road. She loves her students, and her primary goal is to serve her students, her coworkers, and her administration, supporting them in any way that is needed.

This culture of support that is ingrained into Annie’s character shows itself in the way she gives of herself, even if it’s difficult. The phrase “It’s not my problem” is not in Annie’s vocabulary when it comes to the people she loves and serves. Because of this and the toll it can take on a person, she is at her best when she’s in a supportive community where her work and loyalty are acknowledged and appreciated, and one begs to ask, who wouldn’t appreciate this devoted soul??

So how does Annie manage all of this and still find joy and balance in her life? Well, Annie likes to be prepared, not just for the sake of making sure everything on her plate is attended to, but because a bit of organization really helps Annie feel calm and focused but still flexible. Working best within a structure or guidelines, Annie is still able to adapt to accommodate the needs of a specific situation, which makes her a valuable team leader indeed!

Annie’s position this year, as a K-3 coach in Regions 1 and 2 is both exciting and challenging to her, but she’s definitely up to the challenge! If she could end this next year with anything, she’d wish to survive. That sounds like she’s

 a bit anxious about the year, but when she explains what survival looks like to her, we begin to see her strengths and positivity even more clearly. Annie’s picture of “survival” means that she has had a positive impact on her environment, specifically on the teachers she coaches, on the k-3 program and its future, and on her own confidence, abilities, and knowledge base. In other words, she’s looking forward to serving and prioritizing her teachers, her program, and herself. And here we see again that pesky little word: loyalty. As her coworkers and friends, we can be sure that as she navigates this first year with ICN, her focus will be on loyalty, service, and support. Are we lucky or what?


Amy Brownlee – Region III, K-3 Coach

An Appreciative Inquiry Biography
Written by Region IV Coach, Rhonda Urquidi

“Making a difference can mean changing one life.”  Amy Brownlee.

Amy’s coaching in Region 3 supports k-3 teachers.  Helping identify the big picture and work creatively means taking risk, but working day to day and finding the steps to create a pathway to those ideas is Amy’s specialty.  It takes balance, collaboration and creativity.  

Amy comes from a background working with primary and gifted students and their teachers, and her most treasured memories include moments involving productive struggle.  Helping students through advocacy is central to her core values as she spent time helping teachers see the needs of students “twice exceptional.”  The most rewarding aspect came in the form of a letter from a student that needed her help over time.  He struggled in a way that inhibited his learning, but with support and advocacy from Amy, he grew.  His letter of thanks helped her see the desparate need and the importance of connection.  

In region 3 this year, Amy hopes to find opportunities for connection and growth, and with her collaborative nature, to help teachers have fun while experiencing empowerment to gain back control designing their work, working successfully with students, and meeting the teaching standards.  

As teachers reflect on their year, Amy hopes her work will give teachers purpose and the support to feel stronger about their work.

If you’d like to connect with Amy, you can email her at ELALitCoachW@sde.idaho.gov.  

Peggy Thomas-3K-Coach
Peggy Thomas – Region IV, V and VI, K-3 Coach 

An Appreciative Inquiry Biography
Written by Region V Coach, Heather Miller

Listener, worker, mother, and builder are words that truly describe Peggy Thomas, the new K-3 coach for Regions 4, 5, and 6.  Interestingly enough, being a mother is what led Peggy into a career in education.  One of her children was born twelve weeks early and as a result had some learning challenges which were difficult to overcome.  As Peggy puts it, “No one knew how to do deal with her.”  So, Peggy went to work, literally, and became a teacher, in order to help her daughter and others in similar situations.  She went on to spend the next 22 years working with students in the primary grades.

So, what led her to work with the Idaho Coaching Network?  Well, she says she’s a glutton of knowledge and is always looking to grow.  In addition, she loves watching new ideas click and grow within those she teaches, and this love leads her to naturally help people stretch and improve.  Peggy firmly believes that with the right support and direction anyone can learn to think outside the box.  For her this challenge of teaching is fun; it’s like a puzzle, one just needs to discover where all the pieces fit.  She is so excited to work with teachers this year and help them gain skills and resources that can help them and their students reach new levels of understanding.

Outside of work, Peggy relishes time with her family.  She especially enjoys watching the wonder and curiosity that emanate from her grandchildren.  Spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren at their family cabin in Central Idaho (where she can be found with her favorite chocolate and Diet Pepsi) rejuvenates her soul and brings her joy.

Those who work with Peggy discover quickly that she is ready to work, has a listening ear, and wants to build up those she encounters.  The K-3 teachers in Regions 4, 5, and 6 are blessed to have this wonderful woman to work with this year.  

If you’d like to connect with Peggy, you can email her at ELALitCoache@sde.idaho.gov.  

As a classroom teacher, how do you handle the week of Halloween?

With Halloween creeping up on us, our students are starting to get excited about their costumes and going Trick-or-Treating.  On the other hand, teachers are thinking about those crazy days leading up to October 31 and how to contain and redirect that awesome energy and enthusiasm!  Some of our Idaho Coaching Network teacher leaders shared some valuable insights with us about how to creatively survive Halloween.  

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“As a school we dress up each day for red ribbon week, but otherwise we teach the standards just like all other days.”  Tonya Dobbs, SPED LA 7-8, Region 3

“It’s just a normal week, except we have parent/teacher conferences.”  Jonelle Warnock, English 9, Region 3

“As a school, we dress up on the day of the Halloween dance.”  Mandy Stansell, 6th ELA/Pathways, Region 3

“In my class I use Halloween as a curriculum supplement. Since I teach History, I find readings that cover the origins of Halloween, etc. I usually cover the Salem witch trials around Halloween so we spend a lot of time looking at primary documents and finding the “truth” behind the Salem witches. Halloween is rich with historical/educational opportunities!”  Nicole Dodge, High School History, Region 3

“Stick to all routines and expectations, except on the actual holiday (or day that will be celebrated in school). Instead of a traditional party, we have a school parade so everyone can see costumes (K-2) and I let the kids do STEM activities most of the day, with a special treat.”  Lesley Doane, 1st Grade, Region 3

“I don’t do anything differently during the week of Halloween.”  Angela Hagans, 11th ELA, Region 3

“I embrace the chaos! We have a pumpkin scramble with high school buddies. I will also do a small class party and the kids get to dress-up.”  Makaila Medley, 2nd Grade, Region 2

“I joke that high school students are already monsters so there is no reason to celebrate their craziness.”  Mari Harris, 10/11 US History, Region 3

“At my school, the week of Halloween is often our Red Ribbon week. The students are able to dress up in different ways throughout the week, I usually squeeze in a few Halloween-themed art projects during that week, as well.”  Alexandra Guerrero, 5th Grade, Region 5

“We still do our “normal” activities for the week, with the exception of the day our school chooses to celebrate Halloween. We are doing a day of science with body systems, as well as some pumpkin science (following a farm field trip). Our school community loves having Halloween mixed in with science. It’s a perfect fit!”  Jamie Lynn Haralson, 2nd/3rd Grade Combo, Region 1

“I embrace Halloween. I know that the kids are excited (I, myself,  feel a little excited as an adult). My job is not to squash their spirits. We decorate, embrace the excitement, and celebrate with treats at the end of our day.”  Lindsey Matthews, 6th Grade, Region 2

“When I was in the classroom, we would have a “Literature Character Costume Party” on Halloween. On this day, teachers and students would dress up as characters from a favorite book and also bring the book to share with the class. Then we would do a variety of literacy activities throughout the day and culminate the day with a costume parade around the school. I make a pretty good Ms. Frizzle, if I don’t say so myself.”  Jackie Miller, Idaho Coaching Network Region 3 Coach

“Like any other week.”  Andi Arnold, 12th ELA, Region 3

“I don’t really address it in class. Students might tell me about their plans, but that is as far as it goes.”  Carly Hill, 9th ELA, Region 3

“I try to maintain a fairly normal routine but sprinkle in a few Halloween-ish books and lessons. We always celebrate with a Halloween party.”  Tammy McMorrow, 1st Grade, Region 3

Expectant Views of Students

This post was written by Ashley Mayes, a high school English teacher in Riggins (Salmon River Joint School District). Ashley is a Teacher Leader who went through the Idaho Coaching Network program during the 2016-2017 school year and is currently part of the Alumni Program. Read how she her view of students fuels her ability to truly see them as humans and to empower them as learners. You can visit her blog here.

I believe that teachers have an expectant view of students, who bring with them a set of beliefs, experiences, unique qualities, and shared characteristics and values of those that surround them.  As  teachers, this impacts they way we see them as they as arrive–untied shoes and all.  But by seeing them and all of their experiences,  we are able to see them more holistically and less judgmentally.

Only when we realize that that each student, big and small, has a personal story they carry around with them, then we can suspend judgement and bias, which in turn lends our teaching to meet them where they are and push them little by little toward self-acceptance and achievement.

When we do not enact this belief we ultimately set ourselves up for failure.  Failure to see our students as humans–failure to see other adults as humans–and more importantly, failure to see ourselves as humans who also have a unique history full of experience and sense of self.  This in turn is the greatest failure of all: not seeing our students as we hope to be seen by others.