Passing the Torch – Mentoring and Fostering the Profession

By Peggy Wuenstel — I had a birthday last week, one of those mid-fifty ones that leave a person in the limbo between the peak of a career and the end of one. I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement lately, both because of advancing age and retreating certainty about the benefit package I will be able to access when the time comes. One of those pieces of advice that young educators always get, and are in no position to take advantage of, is the suggestion to start saving for retirement as soon as you can because of the multiplier effect of those dollars over time.

I would like to suggest another way to multiply your assets: mentor and support other teachers, and begin as soon as you can.  One rock thrown into a pond creates a few ripples. A whole handful of pebbles alters not only the surface, but can change the contours at the bottom as well. If educators can make that our goal, the impact that we might have on this world is enormous. But it is also not permanent. There is a need to keep mentoring, to keep engaging, to keep offering a hand up to those who are trying to climb into the profession.

All teachers experience those sinking moments when we wonder if the investments of time, effort and personal capital pay off in the accomplishments of our students. Undoubtedly, there are always a few bright spots in the skies over every teaching year, but that is often not enough to light our path into the future. One way to add to the aura is to spread the flame to as many aspiring educators as possible. If the true currency of teaching is the satisfaction of touching the future, through the many students we encounter over the years, then mentoring fellow educators is the ultimate Ponzi scheme – no one benefits more than the teacher at the top of the pyramid.

Being a cooperating teacher for those completing field study or student teaching experiences keeps us in touch with technology, new techniques and the enthusiasm of youth. Another pair of hands and another set of eyes are invaluable tools in today’s classrooms. Working closely with new hires, in teacher mentorship programs, clinical fellowship year supervision, as professional development plan reviewers, or informally in day-to-day teaching duties invests not only in their success but in our schools and society as a whole. One of the great dangers of a wholesale departure of experienced educators from the profession is what current Elementary Teacher of the Year Marsha Herman described as “a sad loss of collective wisdom”.

In many ways it is harder today than it was when I began. I read with outrage the recent comments made by the chairwoman of the House committee on Higher Education, Virginia Foxx.  Her lack of understanding of the issue of student loan debt is appalling considering her position. The ratio of tuition costs to entry level wages has grown astronomically. It is almost always impossible for a college student to earn the funds to pay for a semester’s tuition without parent, institution, and government support. That is assuming that the student can find employment that accommodates a collegiate schedule.

Marquette did a masterful job of assisting me in financing my education. That package included the Pell Grants and Stafford Loans that are currently on the chopping block. I would like to believe that the government’s investment in me as a student has been returned multi-fold. I would hope that those who are at the top of our government’s educational policy will realize that the way to insure a future of well-educated workers who can meet the needs of an aging and varied population, hungry for technology, information, and innovation is to invest heavily in them.

Throughout this year of blogging, I hope that I have been able to offer some practical suggestions as well as Platitudes. Here are a few investments to consider for your teaching investment portfolio.

  • Offer opportunities to observe. Invite new teachers to watch both innovative lesson and daily routines ,and ask follow-up challenges to assist them in using what they see in you in their own teaching plans.  Let them take as little or as much as they wish and make it their own. It is amazing how much can be accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. There is nothing more gratifying than watching both students and teachers use what you have demonstrated.
  • Allow newbies to teach you. There are far more things available to learn than anyone person can find or filter. When a novice feels passionate about something, you can learn from that passion. It allows the new teacher to hone their skills as well. That old adage, To teach someone something, you must understand it yourself, rings true.
  • Write it down. Remembering everything that you discuss is impossible. When you, in your role as mentor, provide the written feedback or resources, or share from your accumulated wealth of materials, you ease the burden and prime the pump.
  • Share the tricks of the trade. Reinventing the wheel is unnecessary and wastes precious time and energy. Pass on your favorite book titles, websites, Apps, enrichment techniques, copy machine tricks, organizing ideas, classroom management strategies and coffee shops on the route to school. A gift card or two is also a nice touch. Introduce them to staff, district employees, parents and community members who are helpful and supportive and show them where the potholes in the road are, both in and out of the classroom.
  • Praise them in front of their peers. I’ve written before about how this can be over and inappropriately used. Those comments still apply. But the teacher just starting out needs to know that someone is in their corner, and is willing to go public about it. Make the comments specific and positive, because that can be inspiring.
  • Be available. You get to decide where and when, but then BE there, be totally there.
  • Be hands off. You have your own classroom, your own set of students. Let your mentee do rather than watch. Active learning is much more likely to result in permanent changes than watching.

Making sure that supervision experiences are offered on a credit/no-credit basis rather than for a grade goes a long way to opening students up to asking questions to aid learning rather than worrying that revealing lack of certainty will negatively impact their performance assessment in college courses. These are the practical application of theory and

Pedagogy, the proof in the pudding. Teaching is not about what we know, but about what we can help someone else to learn. When you can be intensely happy because you can help someone else achieve their dreams, you have it in you to be a great teacher.

2 Responses to “Passing the Torch – Mentoring and Fostering the Profession”

  1. 1 ponderingthewaves April 23, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Love this post. It is so critical that younger teachers are positively mentored. Being a new teacher is not easy, and we see many leaving the profession. So as an older teacher I love to mentor and encourage the passion and love of teaching that can remain for decades. Thank you.


    • 2 pwuenstel April 24, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks for your kind words. I am sure your “mentees” have reaped the benefits of your caring heart. Keep the fires burning, -Peggy



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