In education, we are mentors as well as teachers. In fact, some would argue that despite the fact that transmission of content seems to be the culturally emphasized role of a ‘teacher,’ mentorship is actually our main task. With that in mind, it’s worth exploring what makes for an effective mentor.

To begin, what is the difference between a mentor and a teacher? Well, we all know that in practice, the lines often blend; however, the role of a teacher, traditionally conceived, is to facilitate learning about a particular set of phenomena – a subject or content category. Typically a teacher facilitates this learning with a much younger group of students in a formal school setting. A mentor, on the other hand, is traditionally seen as a person who works with one, slightly less experienced colleague in a setting outside of formal schooling. The key difference, however, is that mentors are not necessarily teaching content, but transferring particular values, priorities, and ways of doing things efficiently through a process of modeling.

The reason I find this distinction important is because it makes me think about a phrase that a colleague of mine would use often. “I’m not in the business of changing behavior,” he would say, “I’m in the business of changing mindset.”

As teachers, I think we sometimes get confused when our roles become that of a mentor. Instead of trying to change the mindset of a student (towards doing challenging work or paying attention to detail and craftsmanship), we try to change their behavior. This is not what a mentor does, right? For some reason, in the more business-like environment created by mentorship, where mentor and mentee are on closer ‘planes,’ so to speak, mentors tend to not really focus on changing the behavior of a mentee. They transfer their habits of mind as to why they do things a certain way rather than simply telling to do as they do. Often, flexibility of method remains if a mentee chooses to complete the task in a different way, so long as the mindset behind it is sound.

So what does mentorship look like, then, for a teacher? I am certainly not saying that we can simply model our habits of scholarship and work ethic and expect it to transfer successfully to every student within the year. We of course need to hold students accountable to our expectations – the relationship between a teacher and student is a different relationship than that of a mentor and mentee – along with living up to those expectations ourselves. However, I do think it’s possible to maintain an atmosphere of professionalism and friendliness with students. Let’s say Nick is consistently not paying attention in class, to the point that he doesn’t even bother to take his notebook out to take the notes, complete the group-think, try the practice problems. So long as Nick has experienced my personality enough to know that I care about him and he is not simply being openly defiant, I can assume that Nick is like every human being in the world and wants to grow and learn and become a better human. In that sense, I can call him out (to himself… not in front of the entire class or something!) fairly harshly – to the point that I can tell he has reacted emotionally… and then crack a big smile and get him to laugh with me about the fact that he’s being a teenager who is a pain-in-my-butt because I care about him and he’s not doing the simple things that he knows lead to success. I can do this because I am keeping fresh in my mind that I am not trying to change Nick’s behavior in that moment. I am trying to change his mindset, and if I am successful in that pursuit, Nick’s behavior will self-correct in the long-run, permanently (and it may not be what I thought was right, either!). Because I know changing mindset is such a massive task, I allow myself to keep my sense of humor and good-nature about me rather than angering myself because I feel like short-term behavior is something I should have control over.

Of course, this simple example doesn’t cover the myriad of challenging situations we must navigate as teacher-mentors; but I think the principle does: We are not in the business of changing behavior, we are in the business of changing mindset. Reminding myself of that every morning helps to navigate the many ‘opportunities for educational growth’ (to say it nicely!) that we receive every interesting day in this profession.

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