Mentoring takes courage. For the teacher being mentored, it means collaborating openly, sharing your strengths and weaknesses, and being teachable. For the mentor, It means exactly the same. I’ve mentored many teachers over the years, with mostly positive results. As a special educator, it’s been a stretch for me to mentor regular classroom teachers, as well as those teaching foreign language and PE. But the basic parameters are always the same. Just like teaching kids, your mentoring relationship can be a natural fit or you’ll discover that you must work hard to develop an effective connection.
Given my background in teaching kids with behavior problems, I have often been assigned (or offered to help) teachers whose classroom management skills are sketchy. At first, I found it hard to predict the outcome in this type of situation. One teacher (let’s call her Jan), had a spotless room, incredible organizational skills, and a permanent smile. Unfortunately, she seemed to be missing her radar. That’s a serious issue. How can you navigate the deep seas without radar? Jan never spotted those blips moving closer and closer to a point of impact. I would be cringing, waiting for the collision, while she remained smiling and oblivious. I wanted to scream out, “Dive! Dive!” or “All hands on board!” but just clenched my teeth and tried not to intervene. We met over 70 times in one year, with almost that many observations. By the end of the year, she transferred to another school. Was that because of me, I wondered? Was she sick of hearing me talk about tuning in to all the kids? I was never sure, but she has since become a successful and admired teacher. And she gave me a great big hug when I last saw her (perhaps thinking, “Thank goodness I don’t have to see her face in my room any more!”).
Right after my year with Jan, I was assigned to Margaret’s room. It was hard for me to find Margaret in the jumble of flying bodies, drifting furniture, and jet engine-level noise. Eventually, I could hear Margaret’s laughter rising above the rest of the tumult, which was both a good sign and a bad one. It was good that she could laugh while buried alive in chaos, but it was bad that she thought the situation was just fine. (The principal didn’t think the situation was fine at all, which was why I had arrived.) Margaret was an easier fit for me personally than Jan, especially in the clutter department. Also, it turned out that Margaret had a great radar but just never used it. She alternated between a kindly babysitter role and a birthday party clown, neither of which works for more than 5 minutes in a classroom. Margaret also went on to become a successful teacher.
I became better at predicting mentoring success because it seemed to be correlated with the amount of hours I spent with a teacher. I guess I either wore them down or they ran away.
That leads me to Thomas, who taught a self-contained classroom like mine but with older kids. The first major problem was that he taught in a different school, so our face-to-face encounters were limited in number. I couldn’t just drop by and observe or chat. We talked on the phone but that wasn’t very helpful. We obviously had a lot in common, but I still found it hard to connect with him. You know the disclosure model where you tell someone your own miserable failures and they will be more inclined to tell you theirs? That was a foreign concept to Thomas, who wanted to appear perfectly perfect. Well, so did I, but my debacles have been so notorious that I couldn’t get away with perfect. I heard from another teacher that Thomas was dying on the vine. His kids were tossing furniture at him, he was losing his temper, and he had no desire to disclose anything at all to me. I had just arranged a time to observe when I got the news. Thomas had last been seen running away from the school at a brisk pace, never to return again.
That left me with a really sad feeling, along with some chuckles on those days when I felt like running away, too. I have continued to mentor to this day and no one else has ever taken off running. Whew!