The Key to Wisdom

mentorBy Laura Sumner Coon — Beth’s voice waivered on the phone as she began her message.

“I just don’t think I can continue mentoring Anthony next year. He will be in seventh grade, and already the math is way over my head! They aren’t teaching things the way I learned them, and I fear I won’t be able to help him.”

For four years, Beth has walked with Anthony through elementary school as a faithful mentor. The toughest challenge has been in keeping him focused, but never the subject material. Now, math is rocking Beth’s confidence.

The relationship that has blossomed between Beth and Anthony has been precious to watch. They get to work each Thursday after school. She nudges him to try, coaxes him to look at his homework in a new way and cajoles him to success. Anthony is at ease with Beth. He can unabashedly admit he doesn’t understand something. He knows she will offer him the best advice she has. And, through the pursuit of completed homework, they have time to joke, share their likes and dislikes, and learn about their families.

Math. It weakens the confidence of just about every mentor, particularly those who are reaching senior status in life. Algebra is creeping into second-grade curriculum. Students in the primary grades don’t talk about “borrowing” like they used to when they are learning two-digit subtraction. Middle-school students haven’t committed the multiplication tables to memory. Every older elementary student immediately turns to the calculator for answers.

Math makes mentors shiver. It has the same effect on parents who sit with their children at the kitchen table each night over homework.

So now Beth is heartbroken that she may have to leave Anthony to learn with someone more math savvy.

Is knowing the answers truly the gift that mentors bring to students?
Not by a long shot. There are great discoveries to be made in the realm of “not knowing.”

More important than approving a correct answer is teaching a child how to understand a concept on their own. What would Beth do to conquer a difficult math problem she faced? She would hunt for a method to solve the problem. She would read the math chapter that describes the process. Then, she would give it a try.

That is an invaluable lesson for today’s students who seem to want instant gratification without uncertainty. Discovery is at the heart of teaching. What a sense of accomplishment to share when together Beth and Anthony search for explanation, attempt understanding, and risk failure or success in applying what they learned!

Beth will undoubtedly continue at Anthony’s side on Thursday afternoons next year. She may not know the answers to his math problems. But, she will know how to lead him into the discovery of solutions. That kind of mentoring is invaluable. Anthony will build persistence, chance failure in the pursuit of an answer, be driven to understand and relish accomplishment. These are the keys to wisdom, no matter the subject, and Beth certainly is able to help Anthony acquire them.



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