The Value of Mentoring

Athena (from Creative Commons attributed to Yair Haklai)

Last week, I substituted in the library of the elementary school where I began teaching more than thirty years ago. In the hallway was a plaque dedicated to a principal who had been my mentor in those long ago days.

Fifty years ago, when I was in Grade 11, I interviewed  this educator for a school project. My topic was "modern trends in education".  My school classes had been "traditional" with 40+ students,
an authoritarian teacher and a curriculum that had not changed in generations.  My youngest brother
(now 57) was experiencing a child-focussed programme based on play.

In 1968, I was fortunate to be in a "special programme" where I did not have to attend Social Studies classes. Instead, I had to write a proposal for a topic of my choice, research, interview and complete an oral and a written presentation.

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.IG.K. Chesterton

Fast forward 20 years...My brother invited his Grade 1/2 teacher to a party celebrating his graduation
from Law School. His teacher had become an administrator in our school district and I was a newly single woman with a 12 year-old daughter. I had no teaching experience as I had only worked part-time during my marriage. By a miracle, my former interview subject offered me a job.

Unfortunately, I started with a Grade 6/7 class! I am now embarrassed by my total unpreparedness
for the task. I had absolutely no classroom management skills although I was able to plan interesting
lessons. No amount of planning or knowledge will help if the students are not engaged. In my student
days, harsh discipline would have been a threat but in the 1980's, this was not an option.

Do you know the secret of the true scholar? In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
I spent a lot of time with my mentor. I had such a feeling of failure and shame. It seemed that I would never be a teacher. She advised me, supported me with her words of advice:

"One day you will realize that your greatest weaknesses are also your greatest strengths."

My second year of teaching was only a little less challenging. My classroom control was slightly improved but my personal life hit bottom. My boyfriend spent time in a psychiatric facility, a very close friend died at age 40, I had a miscarriage...then my mentor died at age 53!

I decided to take a leave, tutor and work for a French book supplier and finish my ESL and library
qualifications. It was the best decision that I ever made! At the end of my leave, I was offered an ESL/library job at a school near my home. My mentor had stressed my care for the individual student and my interest in learning as strengths in my evaluations. Over the years, as I grew to be a stronger person, the behaviour management skills developed. 

When I revisited the scene of my early struggles, I smiled. The library was active and filled with child-centred learning. The staff were willing to attend a lunchtime session on new technology...
And on the wall in the hallway was a humanitarian award plaque offered to students in the name of my mentor.

At 67 years of age, I am teaching again! I would never dreamt such a thing in those difficult days.
As I looked around the room during the "new technology" presentation, I mused that none of these
teachers was born when I had conducted my initial interview.

Years pass, no one else knows about our challenges but everyone benefits from a kind voice with more experience.