Editorial: The Unsuspecting Mentor

by Greg Lenn - Teacher at Prescott Public Schools

In my 27 years in the field of education, there is one responsibility for all teachers that has remained somewhat consistent throughout my career. It is the open acknowledgment that, in addition to ensuring that students learn the curricular content for any given grade level, there is also the role of creating a positive relationship with students. However, in some cases a male teacher is helping a child overcome a negative, sometimes toxic, relationship with the men in their lives. On many occasions I've had mothers come in at the beginning of the year and tell me that I have my work cut out for me because of a strained relationship their child has had with an adult male figure in their life. I always provide the same response to each concerned parent, "Give me three weeks." Now, three weeks is not a magical formula that is rooted in a wealth of data; it is simply what I believe it takes for me personally to begin fostering a relationship with a student, one which is rooted in genuine respect, concern, and ultimately, trust. I can honestly say that there has not been a situation in which this has not been achieved. I assume this additional role as mentor with great pride and steadfast attention because I was in need of a mentor growing up and had that role wonderfully served by one of my elementary teachers. He not only served as a mentor to me growing up, but still serves in this role today. He is the reason I entered the field of education.

Several years ago, there was a professional basketball player that had an altercation with a fan following a game. When asked about it by the media, the player said, "I am not a role model." This was an interesting comment to me as I believe this decision is not ours to make. In my opinion we are all role models, and the only choice we have is whether to be good role models or poor role models. I believe that ultimately the decision is in the hands of the people we are surrounded by in our lives, therefore it's important to keep in mind that eyes are on you all the time. It is important to note that my personal mentor didn't know the significant role he played in my life until I told him some twenty years after I was in his classroom. Therefore, although there will be students who challenge us for an entire school year, they may very well be the ones that we're having the greatest impact on and don't even realize it.

About eight years ago I created a mentoring program for new teachers entering our school district. The idea behind the program is to help support teachers, explore and discuss currently relevant topics to the educational field, and to openly express any questions and concerns that come up in our teaching practice. Each new teacher is assigned a mentor from our staff and we all gather together for monthly meetings. Each month a new discussion topic is introduced, ranging from poverty in education to effective instructional strategies in the classroom. One of the benefits that I see emerging from this program is the opportunity for teachers to hear multiple perspectives and experiences. These multiple perspectives surface not only as a result of the varying experiences teachers have or the specific content area they're teaching, but also from a male/female perspective. Granted, the majority of the years in this program the ratio of male to female teachers has strongly tilted toward females, simply because of the number of women in education. However, I see that the ratio of men to women is irrelevant as long as the voices and perspectives of each are contributed and heard. As we (and other districts across the country) examine the differences in how boys and girls learn differently and find ways to meet these growing needs, why would we assume that the needs end once we become adults? The differences in how we think, learn, and ultimately instruct, is one that should be honored and celebrated. There are many "right" answers to addressing the diverse needs of our students and many instructional strategies to do just that.

As I mentioned, I have been very fortunate in my life to have had a mentor in someone who happened to be a teacher of mine in elementary school. Little did he know at the time I was in his classroom that he was serving as a mentor to me. It wasn't until many years later when I told him about the role that he has played in my life. The lessons that I took away from him had very little to do with specific content and much more to do with the notion of relationship-driven teaching and learning. This teacher-student relationship has now spanned more than four decades, and I continue to seek his counsel with question that I have about teaching. However, as our relationship grew over the years, the questions have expanded beyond teaching and learning and have entered into career decisions, family, child rearing, etc. Over the years, this mentoring relationship has taken many unexpected twists and turns, and for the past ten years we have found ourselves speaking to teachers, students, civic organizations and volunteer groups about the tremendous need to mentor our youth. This simply goes to show that we as educators never know the impact we are going to have on our students. The evidence of your relationships may be recognized at some point, like it was in our case, or it may be that you will never know of your impact. Rest assured, however, that you truly make a difference and are leaving a lasting impression.

Greg has taught 3rd grade for ten years, second grade for 17 years, was the Dean of Students for one year. Having missed being directly with the students in the classroom, he will be returning to the classroom and will be teaching 4th grade

This is a quote Greg wrote for his mentoring group that speaks to why he believes mentoring is critical in education:

"Teaching, much like the human spirit, was not designed to be lived out as a solitary act; a solo flight.  Much to the contrary, teaching should be experienced and celebrated each day with ample opportunities to serve, to share, to receive, to question and to answer...together."