A Journey from Mentee to STEM Teacher Mentor
“As I was on the brink of giving up on my career, my mentor did not give up on me.”
Every teacher has a journey story—some perhaps more colorful than others—of how they came to be where they are in their teaching career. Some (probably very few) might say that their journeys have been a breeze, with no challenge too tough to handle or overcome. But for many others (especially novice teachers) who have constantly struggled through bumps and hurdles in the profession, the end of their teacher journey may be in sight. I was in this latter position very early on in my own journey. In fact, just one month after graduating from my teacher educator program, I began to question my life choices and wondered if teaching was really for me. I was in an extremely stressful situation: I was hired in the middle of the school year during the spring semester, was given the toughest group of 7th graders the school had seen in years, and was assigned to teach math using a curriculum that certainly had some friction with my teaching philosophy. Suffice it to say, I was not enjoying what I was doing and wanted to give up and quit.
One day, in this time of my professional existential crisis, a veteran fellow math teacher leader in my school had asked how things were going thus far. I lied and said everything was fine, but she had proceeded to ask if it was okay to observe one of my classes during her prep period; she probably had an inkling that everything was not “fine.” I was reluctant at first to grant her request, embarrassed by what she would see (mainly a poorly managed math classroom), but I eventually let down my pride and allowed her to observe my class anyway. And of course, her prep period just so happened to be the same period as my most challenging class, and my students certainly lived up to that hype. Typically, students are on their best behavior when a guest is in the classroom, but not my class, certainly not that day when my colleague visited to observe. In retrospect, however, I’m glad that she was able to see the full extent of what I was going through as a novice teacher. From that one observation, she can tell I was hanging by a thread and needed a lot of support. Afterwards, we started meeting weekly where she taught me a variety of strategies in math pedagogy and classroom management, and she eventually became the first (unofficial) mentor in my professional career. Thirteen years later, I am still in the education business, enjoy what I do for a living, and cannot see myself in any other field.
I share this early piece of my journey to highlight what I reflected upon and learned from that unforgettable first semester of teaching with my first mentor. As her mentee, I appreciated the amount of support she gave to my professional growth. This support came not just as material and strategies she shared with me, but more importantly with the time she spent to hear and listen to me. Before every weekly meeting, she always asked, “So how did things go this week?” as she gave me the space to share while she listened intently. I’ve come across other “mentors” in my career where I felt stifled and the advice had always been “Do this, do that,” without fully understanding and knowing my specific needs. It’s important to understand the specific trials and challenges that teacher mentees go through to best address the issues at hand. In some cases, it might even just be a time for mentees to vent.
Another important aspect I learned from that mentoring experience was that my mentor saw my potential and helped me flourish in that potential. As I was on the brink of giving up on my career, my mentor did not give up on me. She knew the challenges that came before me, but she also saw them as opportunities for growth. She was widely connected in the school district and her networks spanned locally and nationally. With every opportunity that arose, she exposed me to a variety of professional development opportunities that I would not have otherwise known about. She was the first to tell me about the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and National Board Certification, which I was both able to achieve. Every bit of my success was her success, and she championed me to keep striving. It’s important to understand that excellent teacher mentors always see potential in their mentees and they continue to champion their mentees for excellence.
As I continued on in my professional journey, I had come across others who have taken on mentorship roles in different capacities of my career. Whether they have been positive or negative mentorship experiences, I always had opportunities to gain and lessons to learn and applied them in my experiences of having my own mentees. In these past roles of me being a math teacher mentor as well as currently being a pre-service STEM teacher mentor, I have learned that mentoring in itself is a challenging endeavor and certainly no walk in the park. I have learned that coaching and mentoring are not mutually exclusive but are rather one full circle in the Venn diagram of teacher mentorship. As a mentor, I strive to communicate to my pre-service STEM teachers that I always put their needs first before coaching and teaching them STEM pedagogical content. By modelling what my first teacher mentor taught me about the importance of listening and growing one’s potential, I hope that my pre-service STEM teachers would do the same for their future students. As it was relevant in the context of my journey, my new teacher mentorship philosophy has become, excellent mentors produce other potential mentors. I hope that one day my pre-service STEM teachers will have mentees that they themselves mentor and guide in their own journeys.
The importance of listening
Thank you for being so generous in sharing your experiences. I think every teacher can relate to having a tough class and in needing support. We need to remember these challenges.
You make an important point that effective support can come through informal channels. What stood out to me in your reflection was your emphasis on the impact of listening! People serving as mentors may have the inclination to give advice right away - but listening and letting the novice teacher identify their needs is key to support - and letting them talk through the issues will add to creating agency in these novice teachers.
In reply to The importance of listening by Katheryn Kennedy
Productive and Reflective Discussion
Absolutely, I've always appreciated mentors who have opened up our debriefing sessions with, "What are your thoughts?" or "What are some areas that you'd like to discuss?" I feel that gave me the opportunity to first reassess how I was doing with my teaching before hearing any feedback that may have some sort of influence. I do the same with my preservice STEM teachers after I observe them during their practicum courses and so far, it's always been a productive and reflective discussion. They typically have more internal notes than what I've written down and they're excellent talking points. I most especially love seeing their improvement in subsequent observations based on their own assessments.
Thank you for your reply to my blog.