The Power of a Mentor
"Show me a successful individual and I'll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don't care what you do for a living - if you do it well I'm sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor." -- Denzel Washington
Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington entitled his first book, 'A Hand to Guide Me,' dedicating it to the mentors that helped shape his life. If he had not met the mentors who were willing to sponsor his dream, we may have never experienced the gift of a brilliant acting career. When we consider equity, this idea of sponsorship should play prominently in how we approach the work. There may not be another Denzel Washington, but what we need are more students who have mentors that help them believe the best about themselves. The equity move for the next couple of weeks (or longer) is to be a sponsor to a student (or educator) of color.
"A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself." -- Oprah Winfrey
Oprah had Ms. Duncan (her 4th grade teacher), Quincy Jones had Ray Charles and Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi. Even Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer had a sponsor - Santa! (Think about it). My first sponsor was a principal named Tom Shouldice.
On a hot Saturday in August of 2005, Mr. Shouldice interviewed me for an English Language Arts position at Dundalk Middle school. As we toured the facility, he inquired about my interest and experience. I had more of the former and none of the latter, but I had passion. He saw this passion and offered me the position; he saw my inexperience and paired me with a mentor - Mrs. Eleanora C. Hall. Six years later, he saw a nervous Black male educator whom he hired win the top award in the state.
Pictured above: Mrs. Trivas (my former assistant principal), Mrs. Shanks (my former English/Language Arts department chair), Mrs. Potter (former Mathematics department chair) and Mr. Shoudice on the night I won the MD Teacher of the Year award.
This moment could not have happened without him. Because of him, I have been able to sponsor many teachers and students in the years since that August day, helping students and teachers reach their best selves through effective instruction and coaching. If equity is about fit for all and access to the underserved; then those who profess to be equity warriors must be in the business of sponsoring or mentoring students and teachers. We must use the connections that we have to prepare and then place students in rooms that may seem to big for them now; but rooms that they may be standing in front of in time to come.
Two weeks ago, I received a message from another informal mentor in my prior district:
"Afternoon - it is with great sadness that I inform you that Tom Shouldice passed away."
In a heartbeat, my August conversation with him ran through my mind. I mentally sped through many of our interactions in the three years I was under his leadership to the visits I made to his office when I left the classroom and then to the last time I saw him alive - at his retirement dinner. I had few words then and the ones I have left comprise the body of this blog. Just then - another image came to my mind that took on a different meaning. The time he sat me in his office and put me on a Teacher Assistance Plan during my second year of teaching.
I remember sitting across him in a comfortable chair. My heart flashed and I looked at him with confusion in my eyes. "I thought I was a good teacher," I said, while the Assistant Principal was entering into the room. I was beside myself.
"You have the potential to be, but this process will ensure that it happens," he said. He did not appear moved by my confusion, but rather resolute in putting me through a process that could have broken me or made me. In the months that followed, I found my voice. The process made me better.
Mr. Shouldice was and always will be my first assistance plan. My first sponsor. I can only honor him by paying his gesture forward.
If you are reading this article and have experienced any modicum of success, you had a sponsor. A mentor. I wonder how many of our underserved students who may eventually drop out or live lives controlled by other people can say the same. We can be a student's assistance plan if we set our minds to not only give them access to rigorous coursework and instruction, but to the tools and processes that cultivate the character necessary to succeed in challenging and rewarding spaces. It is on us to put them in positions to win. Let's get to work.
Classroom Instruction Principle
Provide access to and preparation for challenging content and enrichment experiences
Three Actions/Strategies to Implement Today
1. Use your agency and privilege to put students in powerful places. What are some connections that you have as a teacher that can allow students to be 'at the table' or 'in the room' where decisions are made? What can you do to help them see the real-life application of the content they are studying? On an even more basic level, how can you help them to become co-creators of their daily classroom and schoolhouse experience?
2. Proclaim the 'what's next' for your students and challenge them to get there. When you see promise in a student; stoke that fire with articles, information, scholarships or experiences that can help them deepen that knowledge. If a student is a fan of writing fiction, sponsor him/her to enroll in a community college course, massively open online course (mooc) such as this one or just offer to have this student attend a book signing of a famous fictional author. When the author is talking, whisper in your student's ear - "I can see you doing this."
3. Showcase your colleagues (and students) via your own platforms. Since being named Maryland Teacher of the Year in 2012, I have had the honor of being able to use my platform to promote the profession as well as urgency of equity. Recently, I had the privilege of using this platform to highlight a young teacher (and his amazing students) who I am coaching. It is a joy to be able to use what you have been blessed with to sponsor the next generation of teacher leaders. How are you using your platform to catapult others into positions of influence and learning?
Two Resources for Further Study
Selecting Complex Texts (blog) - by @EducationNomad (Sierah Tyson) - https://blog.unbounded.org/selecting-complex-text-pt-1/
Teaching with Challenging Texts: Prior Knowledge (video) by Dr. Tim Shanahan - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVmuG5I0cx4
One Inspirational Quote/Video
Linda Cliatt-Wayman - How to Fix a Broken School? Lead Fearlessly and Love Hard - https://www.ted.com/talks/linda_cliatt_wayman_how_to_fix_a_broken_school_lead_fearlessly_love_hard
"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." -James Baldwin