Before launching into this post allow me to apologize for something. I love language teaching and learning, but it is not the only thing on my mind when it comes to education. That being said, today's post is not about language so much. Sorry, but some problems are too big for subject areas and this topic today could have saved me a lot of trouble at various times in my career, and at other times was there to save me from others and even from myself. So, if you are looking for inspirational language teaching advice, today is not the day. Rather, if you just want to be inspired to be an even more amazing educator in general, well then grab another cup of coffee and hang out with me for a little while.
For 2015, I have no new resolutions, only wishes. One of those wishes has been to feel inspired to write more. Confession: I haven't been faithful about blogging because I didn't know what I had to say. I think about writing every day, but I had lost my train of thought as to what to write. Fortunately, I have a tribe and that tribe rose to the occasion, encouraged me, redirected my focus and helped me find my voice again. Some of my tribe will read this and know exactly who they are. Others won't know how directly they influenced me to get back to thinking and questioning which are the two super important tools necessary to blogging. My point is this: I needed coaching and I was blessed to have mentors, colleagues and friends who saw the signs that I was discouraged, listened to me and were willing to coach me through a muddy place. Had I not had those relationships and that network this blog could have easily gathered enough dust to suffocate and die out. That may sound like I am overestimating its importance, but I am not. My voice is mine. This blog is more for me than anyone else. It helps me process what I am thinking, seeing and learning into concrete actions and plans. If what I write does nothing else, it helps me. But, even that is only part of the whole point of my post today. What I really want to share has more to do with what others did to make today's post possible: MENTORING.
This topic has been on my "to write" list for awhile, but my thoughts were still nebulously swirling around until this morning when, while enjoying coffee from the Keurig Santa gave me for Christmas, I scrolled down my FB feed to find an article my friends Kristy Placido (@placido) and Carrie Toth (@senoraCMT) posted called Why Half the Nation's New Teachers Can't Leave the Profession Fast Enough by Kathleen Jasper on ConversationED. I didn't get half way through the post until I had to stop reading and whisper shout 'YES! YES!" and I threw back the blanket I was snuggling under, tossed the remote and started writing this because that post doesn't just reflect the truth about new teachers and why they flee the classroom, but why even veteran teachers fight burnout, question themselves and their talents and start wondering what else could they do? I know this because I could be a case study for this topic. The issues raised here are as much a part of my experience as they are for the third year teacher a room down from me who I am sure is struggling with the question of whether or not to stay in the profession after some major crises of her own.
So many times, teachers are put into tough situations based upon decisions made by the leadership in the building and circumstances that are even out of admin's control such as teacher/student ratios, limited real estate (classrooms) within the campus, or even a lack of teaching talent within a department. Let's face it, public education is never without its problems to solve and crises to manage. The real problem is that once those leaders make decisions that put that teacher into what they know will be a difficult position, what safety net do they put in place to protect that teacher? What support do they then provide over the long term to nurture the teacher and make a bad situation something bearable and even instructive? Who coaches that teacher through the really hard times?
The truth is that teacher mentoring gets a lot of lip service and sometimes even a great initial effort, especially in the early years of a teacher's career, but often falls by the wayside as we all get busy and start dealing with our own problems and mountains of work. This is not even to mention teachers who have been around for awhile. They usually only have support systems they create themselves, but there is no guarantee that the support they receive is effective. What so often happens is a teacher is given some challenging assignment, she struggles, makes mistakes, does or says the wrong thing and the wrong time and leadership begins to perceive the teacher as the problem. The more problems she has the more frustrated she gets. This frustration laces all of her choices with just a little poison, but not because she isn't talented or competent. Sadly, this lack of direction turns into a lesser form of suicide. This is the worst thing of all because as teachers, our reputations are really the only thing we have. Negative perceptions make a very difficult trap to escape. Trust me on this. I could be the poster child for this problem.
When exactly DID teachers become superheroes? When did our human qualities disintegrate and when were they replaced with super thick skin with the ability to bounce back any insult or snarky student comment or perfect decision making ability ensuring we never do the wrong thing EVER or super human eloquence guaranteeing we ALWAYS say the right thing no matter who the audience is? Where can we sign up for infinite patience or the power to clone ourselves during those times there aren't enough hours in the day? When should we expect the dose of extra amazing humility to morph into a teachers who are normally autonomous, but NEVER EVER primadonnas and full of themselves who make unreasonable demands. Lord knows that power alone could save so many teachers from themselves every day!
I know, these powers are never coming, but a really good replacement would be a colleague, more experienced either in years of service or in a higher position, who is willing to listen between the lines, see a little further down the road than we can, diagnose the real problem, and offer suggestions for how to proceed through precarious and frustrating situations. Also, they should be someone who is confident and brave enough to tell us the truth about ourselves and our actions and how they will be perceived by other teachers and administrators we work with. That last item really is a super power!
Yes, ideally our campus leadership should either offer that support or identify others on campus who can and help connect new teachers or teachers in troubled times to them. At the very least I would like more school leaders to examine teachers having problems or making mistakes and stop prematurely labeling them as a problem. Granted, those teachers may really not be cut out for the campus or the profession, but maybe, just maybe they don't have the guidance they need to maneuver successfully in the situation they have been put in. Sometimes mistakes, overreactions and crises really happen because tools are missing from the toolbox, not that the mechanic we hired is an idiot.
So, back to the wish list... we could wish for better leadership, super powers or the perfect teaching assignment, but we would be wishing longer than 2015 will last. What can we do then?
Be willing to mentor each other.
We can strive to have servants' hearts and give up a little time and energy to save another teacher from herself or circumstances. No, mentoring is not convenient. It often pops up at the least convenient time possible, but we can't ask for something that we aren't willing to do ourselves. And, if we love our profession the way we say we do it will be just as important to nurture the next generation of educators through the rocky waters of teaching as it is to receive the support we need. I can say with confidence that I would not still be doing this job had critical people and experiences not been there at critical times. Even the bad experiences were necessary, excuse me, ARE necessary to ensure that I forever remain a learner, not an expert or even a master teacher, whatever that is. That term "master" implies that we have learned all there is to learn and conquered it all. I know I am not there yet and I haven't met anyone who is. Even the most celebrated and respected educators in the field don't know it all and still make some boneheaded mistakes. So, there must be hope for me!
Besides the fact that mentoring is taking care of our own, it puts us all in a position to learn about ourselves, what our strengths and weaknesses are and where we have areas to learn and grow. Mentoring, and the willingness to do it, presents to us our flaws in a way that we have to choose between making excuses for our flaws or accepting that we are not perfect and we have more to learn ourselves. Any educator who is unwilling to mentor others, work with a team or share with her colleagues is either too afraid to find out she doesn't have it all together, too arrogant to care about the future of the profession or too lazy to want to continue to grow herself. If we really want to strive to be great teachers we should all take the challenge to mentor someone else even if we lack the confidence to do so. Confidence will come through doing, as any great coach would tell you.
Happy New Year and Happy Coaching!