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Mentors Beat Policy

In the edubloggoverse, we spend huge amounts of time debating and discussing educational policy and philosophy. And yet so few of us who work in actual classrooms are directly shaped or influenced by these sorts of discussions.

This week, I was reminded of the relative unimportance of such high-fallutin' discussions because Paul Zolbrod found me on facebook.

Dr. Zolbrod was one of my English professors when I was a student at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and he taught me a great deal about how to be a teacher. As an undergrad, I knew I wanted to teach, but I had trouble getting my act together. I particularly remember the experience of stopping by his office to pick up a paper (maybe more than once) that could justifiably have been labeled "lacking in support and development" or "more pre-occupied with getting it done than thinking it through," or even that old standard, "crap." But Dr. Zolbrod had the gift of telling you where you had gone wrong and why your paper had missed the mark, yet somehow making you leave the office feeling strong and tough and ready to Be More Awesome next time. Getting feedback on bad papers made me feel like I really had something going on; I can only imagine that had I ever written a really good paper for him, my head would have exploded.

What I learned was that you do not help people grow large by making them feel small. You do not shame people into excellence.

The other thing I remember about him was that he clearly saw strengths in me that I could not see in myself, and he found ways to push me toward those strengths. Because of him, I had the experience of teaching Beowulf to elementary gifted kids and Arthurian tales in a local high school. He helped me find paths to the material that really interested me, even though it wasn't where his own emphasis lay (he wrote the most complete and important translation of the Navajo creation story in modern times). He really inspired me to be me, not a knock-off version of anyone else.

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I was not a top student in the department, nor was I one of his top students or close mentees. He did all this for me, and as near as I could tell, I was just one more student in his class, and I think my experience of his teaching was a common one.

So from Dr. Zolbrod I learned that a good teacher is there for every student, helping each one see what is best in him, helping him grow without imposing your own vision of what he should grow to be.

Much of what I carry into a classroom comes from places like that. Joe Stewart taught me that you keep your expectations high at all times, and students will rise to them. Ed Frye taught me that you trust students to be responsible and give them room to breathe and rise and lead. Mike Eichholtz taught me that if you are passionate and excited about what you're teaching, your students will be, too, no matter what it is. Jack Ferrang taught me the value of establishing a classroom culture that values smarts. Tony Bianchi taught me the power of patience and letting students move at their own speed. And Janet O'Keefe made me want to be an English teacher in the first place, by showing just how wide and deep and rich a world an Engish teacher gets to play in.

The list goes on and on, and much of what I learned from the men and women who inspired me turned up in education textbooks, professional training sessions, long philosophical discussions of how a teacher should teach. But nothing in all the verbage ever impressed me in the same way that living, breathing examples did.

We can talk all day about how to develop teacher training programs (and, of course, make them super-duper rigorous). We can discuss what policies and procedures will best reshape the face of education. But at the end of the day, it's teachers in the classroom who are the face of education, and as much as we have studied and prepared and practiced and studied some more, we are shaped by the great teachers who came before us.

All the policies and programs and initiatives and legislated mandates in the world don't change that. Policies and mandates can get in the way of the shaping, but in the end, it's relationships that make the difference.

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