Why we all need mentors and how to make it happen

Published originally on Getting Smart 

One of the most important roles for educators today is that of being a mentor. As educators, we are often called upon to mentor the students in our classroom, as well as colleagues in our school. Throughout our lives, we have all had at one time or another a person who has served as a mentor, whether they have been selected for us or it is a relationship that simply formed on its own. Take a moment and think about the different mentors that you have had in your life. How many of them were teachers? How many of them were other adults, such as family friends or perhaps even coaches? How many of your own mentors have been the colleagues in your building or members of your PLN (Personal or Professional Learning Network)?

There may be a few that come to mind immediately, both because you remember having a specific time that was set aside to work with your mentor, maybe during your first-year of teaching or as a teacher who needed some guidance while working through some of the challenges of teaching. There is probably a mentor that comes to mind because you credit them with some aspect of personal and or professional growth. For myself, I have been fortunate to have some supportive mentors that have helped me to grow professionally and taught me what it means to be a mentor. These relationships are so important because it is through mentorships that we continue to learn and grow and become a better version of ourselves. In the process, we also develop our skills to serve as a mentor to someone else and continue the practice promoting growth.

Getting Started with Mentoring

Take a moment and think about your classroom or your school and the types of programs which may be already in place in your building. Are there specific times set aside for teachers to act as mentors for students? To their colleagues? In my school district, Riverview, we implemented a homeroom mentoring program a few years ago, as part of our RCEP (Riverview Customized Educational Plan) which we were making available for our students. A few years prior to that, we began with the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, and our school was among the first schools in the United States to achieve national/state recognition for bully prevention. Through the program, we implemented a variety of learning activities, with the goal of engaging students in learning and collaboration, to promote a positive school climate and to create opportunities for students to build positive and supportive peer relationships.

For our Homeroom Mentoring Program, small groups of students in grades 9 through 12, are assigned to a homeroom, with a mentor. By having these smaller groups, the teachers are able to serve as a mentor for each student, working with them closely, to not only support them during their high school experience but also to prepare them for their future after graduation. It is a way to provide a more personalized learning approach for each student and for each student to know they have support available to them. These mentoring homerooms meet on a regular basis, providing ongoing opportunities for the teacher and students to interact in team-building and work on fostering peer relationships. During these homeroom meetings, some of the activities include pride lessons, goal-setting discussions, career exploration surveys and job shadowing, community service experiences and other topics which come up throughout the year. It is a good opportunity for the students to have a small group to work with and to develop critical skills for their future, such as communicating, collaborating, problem-solving, and developing social and emotional learning skills as well.

In addition to the planned activities, a key part of our mentoring program is the creation of a “portfolio” which includes samples of student work, a job shadow reflection, resume, list of volunteer experiences and additional artifacts that students can curate in their portfolio. The past few years, students have organized these materials into a binder, which has been kept in the mentoring homeroom. The materials become a part of their required senior graduation project. This year, we have started creating an e-portfolio, using Naviance, a program that promotes college and career readiness. Students begin by creating their online profile and sharing their activities and interests. Using the program, students can take surveys to learn more about their own skill areas and interests, learn about colleges which might match their interests, and also continue to build their digital citizenship skills. According to one of our guidance counselors, Mrs. Roberta Gross, the mentoring program was implemented to help students make transitions toward post-secondary goals and plans, and moving to the e-portfolio is creating more opportunities for students to explore their own interests and create their online presence.

There are many benefits of having students create an e-portfolio. Moving to an e-portfolio makes it easier to access the information for each student, it can be shared with parents and it opens up more conversations between the students and the mentor teacher. It is important to prepare our students for whatever the future holds for them beyond high school graduation, and working with them as they grow, in these small groups, really promotes more personalized learning experiences and authentic connections.

As a final part of this program, our seniors take part in a senior “exit interview”, a simulated job interview with a panel of three teachers, a mix of elementary teachers and high school teachers. It truly is a great experience to have time to see the growth of each student, learn about their future plans and to provide feedback which will help them continue to grow and be better prepared for their next steps after graduation. And for students, being able to look through their portfolios, reflect on their experiences, self-assess and set new goals, knowing they have support available, is the purpose of the mentoring program.

Resources on Mentoring

There are many resources available that can provide some direction for getting started with an official mentoring program.

  1. The “Adopt a class” program, founded by Patty Alper, who also wrote a book on mentoring called “Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America.” Alper talks about the impact of mentoring and how her view of it is towards an “entrepreneurial” mindset, preparing students for the future, with the skills they need. Alper breaks down the process into practical steps, with examples and encouragement for those new to the mentoring experience.
  2. The national mentoring partnership “MENTOR”, offers a website full of resources and ways to connect with other mentoring programs. MENTOR even held a Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C., this January, where professionals and researchers gathered to share ideas and best practices for starting a mentoring program. Be sure to check out their monthly themes and presence on Twitter.
  3. The National Mentoring Resource Center offers a collection of different resources for mentoring include manuals, handouts and a long list of additional guidelines for different content areas, grade levels, culturally responsive materials, toolkits and more. The website has most of the resources available as downloads.

How you can get started

I would recommend that you think about mentors that you may have had at some point during your life. What are some of the qualities that they had which made them a good mentor and why? For me, I felt comfortable talking with my mentor, being open to the feedback that I would receive, and I knew that my mentor was available to support me when I needed. Another benefit is that we learn how to become a mentor for others, and when we have these programs in place, our students will become mentors for one another. I have seen the positive effects in my own classroom, and many times, these new mentorships have formed on their own.

 

A phenomenal mentor that taught me what it means to be an educator.

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Thrilled to have an awesome mentor and professor, thank you Bruce Antkowiak

Counting the days…?

It’s back to school time! Depending on who you are, your feelings about heading back to school might differ dramatically. And I don’t just mean whether you are a parent versus a teacher, I mean even within these two groups. Among those of us in the classroom, the realization that we are headed back to school brings about a lot of different reactions. Of course there is still that perception that teachers have the best, easiest job, because we have summers off and all those holiday vacations as well, and don’t forget about the weekends. And there may even be a perception that teachers are happy when the school year ends. I have been asked many times, “How many days left until you’re off for the summer?”

I have never been one to count down the days till the end of the school year. While I am cognizant of the end of the year, I don’t, nor have I ever posted a countdown of how many days until summer vacation begins. A few years back there was a countdown board posted, but it was just for a student’s birthday. (Fun fact, she had written using a sharpie, so it kind of became a permanent birthday countdown board).

For me, I consider school to be year-round. Even though I don’t have to report to my classroom during the summer months, I am still involved in professional learning and trying to grow and learn as much as I can during that period of “free” time. I love being able to set my own schedule, in my own space, definitely perks of having the summer off. But I know that there are educators who do count the days until the end of the year, not because of excitement for a family event or vacation, or any special occasion, simply because they are done “working” for the summer.  I think that to be in education today, you really have to love what you do. You have to know your “why” behind it and you need to stay focused on what your purpose is for having chosen to be in this amazing profession.

Just like any other job, teaching has its challenging moments as well. And who hasn’t been excited about the weekend or an extended holiday break coming around? That’s natural regardless of what profession you are in. But if you are in education and you are counting down the days, you end up conveying the message to students that you cannot wait for the year to end. Why would they want to be in your class, or even be positive about being a student your class whenever you’re sending the message that you can’t wait to have a break over the summer? That may be blunt, but that’s exactly what I think of when I hear of “countdowns” in classrooms. 

I know that students may count down the days, especially seniors, until summer vacation starts. This is understandable because they have spent so much time in classrooms, sitting in uncomfortable desks for nearly eight hours a day and then going home to do even more work. And I know there’s a big controversy regarding the benefits of whether or not homework should even be given, especially when we think about the real world and the jobs that are out there, like teaching, where work does not end at the end of the “work day”. But at this point in time, I think that we need to focus on preparing students to make decisions about their future. To do this, I changed my practice of nightly homework and instead, created more ways for them to work in class and for me to work with them individually and in small groups. It is also important to stay positive about the learning experience and to do that means not counting down until the end of the school year.

Now the flip side is the back to school. Some parents are thrilled to have their children head back to school after a busy summer of family activities and hectic schedules. Some teachers are not as excited to head back to school because for them it means giving up that flexibility in the schedule where they can spend time doing what they want, learning, or just simply relaxing with family and friends.  But there are some educators who are excited about heading back to the classroom, so much in fact that they go in over the summer to prepare their classroom, to buy school supplies for their students and to really work on making it a welcoming place starting with Day one.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed this summer, and I am somewhat sad that there are two weeks remaining before I head back to school for the year. However, once I get there, I’m happy to be there. The opportunity to work with students and my colleagues and to just have something new and exciting to learn and explore every single day inspires and motivates me. And I think if you are in the business of counting down the days until the school year ends and openly sharing how upset you are that the school year is beginning again, you might want to consider a career change.  Again, apologies for being slightly blunt.

 

A few weeks ago my #4OCFPLN noticed that there were tons of negative memes being placed on Twitter and social media by educators about heading back to school. So to make a difference, they began to create their own memes with positive messages and excitement for heading back into the classroom. Think about it. As an educator you have the opportunity to do something different every single day. You make the decisions, it’s your classroom, you interact with the students and your colleagues and you have the power to make it something wonderful and unique and fun. It is YOUR choice to make it amazing. If you don’t enjoy heading back into the classroom, then maybe you should think about the way that you are doing things and ask the students for some input. Don’t be afraid to mix things up a little bit. Especially if you find that teaching can be overwhelming at times or if you have been counting down at the end of the year.

Each summer I spend a lot of time traveling to conferences, reading a lot of books and trying to take care of things that I can’t get done during the school year. I do stay connected with my students over the summer, as they have some ongoing reading to do to keep up their language skills. As much as I love teaching, I definitely get used to my routine of sleeping in later or staying up late and reading, and not really having any set schedule to follow. But a lot of the time I find that I’m thinking about what I’m going to do once I get back into the classroom, how can I be better than I was last year, and what can I do differently to really make it an exciting learning experience for my students.

So if you are thrilled to be heading back to school, I think that’s awesome. Please share your positive outlook with others who may not be as excited as you. And if you are thinking about how sad you are that school is starting so quickly, think back to your previous year and some of your best interactions, or your best lessons or even your worst lessons. What made them go so well and why do you think some of them didn’t go as well? Invest some of your remaining summer “break” rethinking the lessons that didn’t go as well and make those the point that you start the new year with. Challenge yourself to do something different and something better than the year before. Maybe that will be the motivation and the catalyst that you need to build some excitement for heading back and greeting your students for the upcoming school year.

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Welcome back to school!

 

Here are a few from the #4OCFPLN –

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Sometimes we need to refocus

** A little different post today.

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Photo by Vali S. on Pexels.com

Sometimes life can become pretty challenging. And the definition of what exactly is “challenging” varies from person to person.  Maybe I’m really tired in the morning and for me, getting up is a “challenge.” Or if things don’t go as I planned or in the classroom  I am dealing with a classroom management issue, I might feel like it is an insurmountable challenge each day.

We each have our own stressors and things that will tend to send us into a spiral, at least that’s how I feel sometimes. Have you ever had that feeling where you just feel so out of control, unable to make yourself move because you can’t make things happen like you want to? You get to that point where you feel hopeless and helpless and so many different emotions all wrapped up in one. It can be hard to pick yourself up depending on what it is that you’re dealing with. Trying to stay positive in the face of adversity, as my friend Mandy Froehlich has written in her book The Fire Within. There are things that we go through, experiences that are not the greatest, challenges we face or perhaps even ways that we’ve been treated or actions we have taken. Sometimes although they are negative and leave their mark, it is often that they propel us to do something greater, different that will make us better and stronger not just for ourselves, but more importantly, will help us to provide more opportunities and be better for those we serve.

 

Lately, I have felt kind of overwhelmed and been involved in conversations about the importance of keeping balance and finding time for yourself, and I know it’s not just me. Some days I feel like I hit a wall, and struggle to find the strength or motivation to just keep going or sometimes to even get started. There will always be a growing list of things that need to be done, of goals that we have set for ourselves,  and there will never be enough time. Or will there be?

I hear students, colleagues, family, and friends complain that they didn’t have time, or there will not be enough time. I often feel this way too, but have learned from experience and read quotes which reflect the concept that “we make time for those things which matter to us.” It has to be true, but of course, it requires that we decide the importance of our tasks, which is never one of my strong points.

 

I need to keep perspective and sometimes that is really tough to do. And I try to remind students of this as well. No doubt that things can add up so quickly and they get to the point where you feel like there’s just no way out, no resolution that seems achievable.  It can be a struggle, especially when you don’t know where to start and what’s even worse is that you realize that nobody can help you. Of course you have supporters in your corner for whatever it is that you’re going through, friends who will be there for you to listen and to give you the support you need. But when it comes down to it, there are just some things that only you can do. You are completely on your own, and knowing that is terrifying. Knowing that can cause a lot of fear and hopelessness. But we have to work through it, and it can be so difficult. At least that’s what I’ve been feeling lately and talking with friends and members of my PLN, actually less talking but more listening, I know that there are some really big problems and challenges that people are facing out there. Way bigger than the ones that I may be dealing with at the time and so it gives me pause and forces me to think before I talk and share what is going on with me.

I’ve been really trying to lean in and listen more to what is going on in the lives of others. Because educators are in the business of doing what’s best for kids, and what’s best for others, so I need to model this in my professional and personal lives.

I have learned to be more mindful of the needs of others and in the past, what may be the current complaint or challenge that I’m facing, rather than speak it, I lean in and listen to see what the challenges are that others may be facing. This allows me to refocus my energy on what I can do to help them rather than wasting my energy feeling helpless myself. It shouldn’t be about me. It’s not about me.

 

So if we can channel that energy that would otherwise be used feeling helpless or hopeless or sad or any variety of emotions, and rather use that emotion for the benefit of others, then I think we will hit the ground running. It’s all about perspective and even though we all live in our own space in this gigantic world, sometimes we need to just take a look around us and see how we can help someone else, rather than dwelling on our own “challenges.” We help ourselves by lifting others up.