Go Mentor or Go Mental

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson

Besides the optional therapist and the mandatory confidant, the mentor plays a major role in helping new educators survive, and intermediate educators thrive. And survive.

A complaint I often hear is: I don’t get mentorship.

And when I hear this complaint, I know I’m hearing it from a professional.

Only a professional is willing to enter into and foster a relationship that explicitly recognizes that someone knows more than him or her, has more experience than him or her.

Only a professional is willing to trust that the differential in experience and wisdom between him or her and the mentor will contribute not to continued insecurity, but rather, to a space for growth.

Only a professional is willing to come to terms with his or her vulnerability in the plain sight of another person.

But all growth is about coming to terms with vulnerability. As the amazing Rachel Carson quote above suggests (for children as well as adult learners), for a teacher to maintain a sense of wonder in the face of anxiety and vulnerability, he or she needs someone to share the excitement, joy, and mystery. And, I would add, someone to be a port in the storm of fear, anxiety, and unavoidable occasional failure.

My advice for finding and fostering a relationship with a Mentor:

  • If you are assigned a mentor, that’s great. And you may luck out. But if the chemistry isn’t there, or the availability is not sufficient, be okay with looking elsewhere. You can have more than one mentor.
  • Communicate with your mentor about what s/he expects from your meetings. Suggest what you, too, hope to get.
  • Treat mentoring sessions like an expensive session with a trainer or therapist. Come to sessions prepared. Set an agenda. Keep an eye on the time. And put the trickiest, most difficult stuff first.
  • Build in time, also, for shmoozing, and celebrating victories.

And some more subtle does and dont’s about working with your mentor:

  • Don’t be defensive. If you trust your mentor and you’re getting difficult feedback, explanation or apologies should be the last thing on your mind. Instead, demonstrate your understanding of the feedback by putting the feedback into your own words. Then, adopt a posture of, “That’s challenging to hear, obviously. But I will think about it and work on it.” – That evening, be sure to vent with your confidant. (See blog post 8).
  • Do accept compliments fully. It’s not flattery: your mentor is training you to notice what the areas for growth are. Adopt a posture of, “I’m glad to hear the work I put into that is paying off.”
  • Do bring specific concerns to your mentor. Just as a class session with unclear goals can be interesting but won’t lead to measurable growth, sharing general gripes with your mentor are less productive than specific questions or case studies. Bring students’ work to help focus your session.
  • Don’t allow the year to slip by. Your mentor may become busy and cancel sessions. For that matter, you may become busy and cancel sessions. In the same conversation where you cancel a session, reschedule your session.

Lastly, the classic Jewish Text, Pirkei Avot, says, “…Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: ‘From all those who taught me I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).“

In this spirit, I invite all readers to share: what advice do you have for effectively working with a mentor?

What do great sports coaches and teachers have in common?

Delanie Walker, a tight-end in the NFL, recently responded to a question regarding his former San Francisco 49ers coach, Jim Harbaugh: “Why is Jim Harbaugh such a great football coach?

He’s a player. He’s just like one of us. Jim Harbaugh is always in the locker room. He’s in the locker room playing basketball with us, he’s in there joking around. He eats with us. He doesn’t sit with the other coaches, he sits with the players. He just wants to be a player, he goes to practice and sometimes puts on the full gear, throws the ball, he conditions with us.

I think that’s what makes everybody buy into his philosophy: he believes in it so much that he does it.

On TV, you see him yelling, jumping around, going crazy. I think that’s his gametime self, but in general he’s always joking around, laughing, playing. You don’t see him at practice yelling and going crazy, he’s always kind, asks you how your day was.

Having played basketball growing up (in fact, I still play regularly even though my recovery times are now weeks instead of days), my coach’s impact has been a lasting one and is undoubtedly weaved deeply into who I am. Sure, we learned basketball fundamentals, set plays, and ran a lot in practice (seriously, a lot). But, like Delanie with respect to his 49ers coach, that’s not what I remember — and certainly not what made my coach a great mentor for me and my teammates.

Breaking down Delanie’s points a bit, three traits seem to be prominent in his response:

  • Values relationships
  • Leads by example
  • Encourages with positivity

These are fantastic traits to find in a football coach, a basketball coach, a manager, a friend, a significant other, a CEO, or a teacher. The parallels between team athletics and the classroom environment are fascinating, and I look forward to diving into this space more deeply in future posts, hopefully with the help of teachers and coaches (if interested, email me: Manoj@ClassDojo.com).

The ultimate goal for an NFL coach is to win games. There is no ambiguity in terms of results, as it all comes down to your season record, playoff record, and who takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But the path to get there for an NFL coach is not just a well-conceived playbook and carefully crafted strategy for each game. It’s cultivating players like Delanie Walker to be constantly motivated, inspired, and always contributing to the system.

Photo: Harbaugh surrounded by his players after NFC Championshp win in 2013, Credit: Reuters