Imprisoned by Mentoring?

I had an interesting day yesterday. 

I found out that I’m not a teacher leader—At least by the definition of another recognized teacher leader I know. In her mind, I’ve wasted my opportunity to be influential and I haven’t used my voice to do anything meaningful. In fact, my decisions about leadership have "saddened and confused her."

Now before reading any further, please know that I’m pretty secure in my teacher leadership!  I don’t define who I am as a leader by what others think of me and I’m actually pretty confident that I’ve had a relatively significant impact on teaching compared to most of my peers. 

(How’s that for arrogance, selfishness, stubborn-ness, and belligerence all wrapped into one!)

What I find interesting is that when asked to define what is so disappointing about my decisions as a leader, my colleague says that mentoring beginning teachers is what truly defines a teacher leader—-and formalized mentoring is something I’ve avoided like the workroom on a Wednesday!  "You can’t be a teacher leader," she argues, "unless you’re mentoring.  To turn your back on mentoring is a failure."   

In some ways I agree with my critic:  People who commit themselves to  mentoring as a form of leadership are SAINTS.  They’re support of new teachers is invaluable and an incredibly important form of teacher leadership in our profession.  We don’t have enough remarkable mentors in my school….and they don’t get paid enough to do what they’re doing.  We should bronze every accomplished mentor for future generations to admire.

But as a guy who has never embraced working with new teachers, I’ve got a dozen questions running through my mind right now:

—Does the view that mentoring = teacher leadership stretch into all buildings?  Is that because mentoring is probably the most common leadership opportunity available to teachers? 

—Do most school leaders think mentoring = teacher leadership?  And if so, does this help or hurt teachers?  Does the belief that mentoring = teacher leadership limit the impact that can we have on other areas of our profession because no one is particularly inclined to see us as anything other than strong shoulders of support for beginning teachers?

—Is it time to redefine mentoring to encompass those of us who support more experienced peers?  Is my work to move a 6th year teacher who is competent in the classroom but bored with his work into new roles "mentoring?"  Are bloggers who stimulate provocative thinking about issues related to teaching and learning "mentors?"  Is reaching out to policy makers who have no idea what classrooms are really like "mentoring?"  How about identifying and then amplifying instructional practices?  Where does that fit into the "mentoring" conversation?

What say y’all?

I guess I’m just a bit fed up with  "teacher leadership" today.  We’ve got our heads wrapped around traditional roles for teachers—and because mentoring beginning teachers isn’t something that leaves me jazzed, I find myself all-too-often on the outside looking in.


8 thoughts on “Imprisoned by Mentoring?

  1. Betty

    Teacher mentoring is a natural process, not an assigned task. There are experienced teachers that need help with technology, and younger teachers should jump in and help. Mentoring can go both ways. A few years ago, one of our veteran teachers offered to help a new teacher get started with setting up her class, etc., and the new teacher smugly informed her that she had learned everything she needed to know in college. We were all shocked.

  2. eiela

    I was assigned a “mentor” my first year. She got volun-told for the job. She did not teach the same subject as me. She had 2 small children and also coached cheerleading. She got paid an amazingly large stipend of $100 a semester for trying to help me out during quick snatches of conversation between classes and in faculty meetings. She’s a lovely lady and she tried her best, but honestly I was “mentored” way more by the other teacher who taught my grade level and subject, and didn’t get paid anything extra for helping me out. If it’s not done right, “mentoring” is just a “hey, we’re doing something to retain new teachers!” sham.

  3. jose

    I agree with Ms. Cornelius. Even with my few years of experience, I still take the time to help other teachers (even some who are older than me) get the job done, and thus even without the title, I still consider myself a teacher mentor. People who want to keep the mentor title all for themselves make me roll my eyes over and over again …

  4. Ms. Cornelius

    Ha. Since I am not a bootlicking chimp, I am not one of the chosen to be a mentor lately. But still, I mentor loads of people. It’s not the label, it’s the action!

  5. Carly Albee

    You are too a mentor. Maybe you don’t have the formal title of “Bill- mentor of all mentors.” You have personally inspired this young teacher to do many new things. Your blog and involvement in the teaching profession lead others to do great work…that’s mentoring on a different level. Thanks for being my mentor!

  6. Pat

    We have had a mentoring program in our district for years and I have found that many times the mentor teacher is assigned without their knowledge, or they are mentoring someone outside their field of knowledge. I don’t think we should equate mentoring with teacher leadership because I have seen too much of this as just being another label for the district to hang its hat on. There are so many instances of true mentoring going on that is not even recognized by the administration and thank goodness there are people there willing to do this.

  7. Dina

    Bill, you yourself posted a fantastic article on real ways of holding teachers accountable not so long ago– one of your key components was “spreading your knowledge.” That may not fit into the box your colleague wants you to get inside– but if what you describe isn’t mentoring, I don’t know what is.
    PLUS, it behooves us to nurture the diverse professional talents of our colleagues in exactly the same way as we would our (gasp!) students. You got a student who isn’t left “jazzed” by music? Give him pastel crayons. You got a buddy teacher who’d rather work with honing an already established skill set of a teacher? Why not simply honor that?

  8. Paul C

    I have to say that this year (my seventh, all at the same school) has radically changed my answer to your questions. Prior to this academic year, I was working hard in my classroom and had received glowing evaluations, but I was not involved in mentoring (or any other form of “new teacher preparation”). While it could be argued that I was essentially a new teacher myself, and I wasn’t “ready”, I still felt that I wasn’t doing “enough”.
    This year I took on the role of friendly neighborhood techie, with all of the responsibilities that come with it. I routinely give telephone and email advice to teachers troubleshooting their tech equipment. I conduct a wide variety of technology-related workshops and other PD. And, for the first time, I feel like a teacher leader.
    Keep in mind that I have been serving on committees and have been Science Department chair for several years. But this new role has put me in a position to influence teachers (in much the same way that you described) and I have enjoyed the new relationship that I have with other members of the leadership in the school, including our relatively new principal.
    My point is that mentoring does not equal leadership in every building. Your interaction with this teacher may have been a response to the envy that some feel toward highly accomplished and recognized young teachers (like yourself). In my experience, many veteran educators react by trying to minimize your perceived impact. I am so glad that you haven’t let this teacher’s comments affect your self-confidence.
    Don’t let the man get you down!

Comments are closed.