It’s time we rethink mentorship. All teachers deserve a strong mentor, but just because a district doesn’t provide one doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. You can find one or many mentors on your own. Hear me out.
In its purest form, a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. It’s a person who can provide perspective, guidance, advice, or modeling. A mentor is not necessarily a friend—although they could be. I qualify this definition because I worry that there might be some remarkable people in your building to whom you could turn for inspiration, but don’t because you don’t have a relationship with them.
So make one. Walk into their classrooms and say, “I really admire your expertise in __________ and I want to learn from you. Can you share any words of wisdom?” If that’s too proper, try this: “Here’s some chocolate. Teach me”.
Okay, so work on your own introductions. In the meantime, here are some archetypes to look for in your building:
- The Subject Mentor: This is the most brilliant person in your department—the person you suspect knows the subject matter better than anyone else. Some possible questions to ask her/him: “How did you become so experienced in _______?”, “You’ve been teaching ____ for a while; what are the essentials on the topic that I should prioritize in my lessons?”; “What do you see as the single most important concept I should teach my students this year?”; “Who was your mentor in this subject? What did you learn from them?”.
- The Young Teacher: Think of a newbie who is really making an impact with kids. Ask them what they think of their experience so far, but also try to extract some of their brilliance. Try questions like: “How do you build connections with kids in ways that you didn’t learn in college?” “What do you see as your biggest strength and how did you identify it?”; “What about this class of students really inspires you?”; “What do you do create relevant connections for students?”; “What are the pop culture references I need to know to bond with kids?”.
- The Uber Professional: This is the teacher that is involved with organizations, conferences, groups, sports, clubs, committees, etc., etc. Try to tap their enthusiasm for the profession with questions like: “Which organizations have taught you the most?”; “Who or what keeps you inspired?”; “What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned from a conference?”; “Without committing myself today, can you think of organizations or programs that could help me improve my practice?”.
- The Binder Queen: Okay, it doesn’t have to be binders, but go find the teacher in your school who is hyper-organized and ready for the apocalypse. This one’s planned weeks in advance and is always prepared. Knowing you’ll always value your slightly sloppier habits, try these questions: “What do you do when a student asks a question you don’t know the answer to?”; “How do you plan around unexpected detours in lessons?”; “What’s the single biggest time saver you can think of when it comes to grading?”; “What physical organizers in your room really help the kids?”.
- The Quiet Reflector: This teacher may not be as social, but perhaps you’ve identified that he or she is an incredible listener and idea keeper. This person may take notes, photos, or keep samples a little more meticulously than their peers. Benefit from their wisdom by asking questions like: “At the end of the day, what really matters for you about your job?”; “Can you think of a time that a kid taught you something?”; “How do you grow through stressful experiences?”; “How do you know what to write down or keep?”; “What types of things should I start paying attention to?”.
- The Leader: Principals and departments are so overwhelmed with tiny, stressful duties that they rarely have opportunities to engage in positive, philosophical questions about the profession. When you think the timing is appropriate, act on a dare and ask your principal a question like: “What’s something you didn’t know about our campus until you took this position?”; “What interesting subject knowledge facts have you learned from classroom observations?”; “How do you stay in touch with the kiddos in context of all of your other duties?”; “What do you miss most about being a classroom teacher?”.
Go and learn! Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.