Mentor Story

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Through the years of teaching and lecturing, I have had a string of colleagues who would ask for my opinion, advice and help.

Quite a few would invite me to their lessons to get a feedback afterwards. There is no specific “mentor” position in my native educational system; consequently no remuneration is given for such work. And work it is! I believe we do it not only from the goodness of our hearts, but also due to an inner inclination, a desire to share and help solve problems. Some people would come to my lessons to watch how I cope with discipline; others would worry about motivation; yet others would simply need a nudge towards the use of dictionaries, ICT, even literature. It stands to reason that one should read, listen, write and speak in order to maintain and develop one’s own language level, yet not every teacher realizes the need for constant maintenance of one’s skills. This is a never-ending story.

The one I would like to tell today is a bit different, in that it is my story of an ideal person whom I have the privilege to mentor. We got acquainted many years ago at a city school contest. I was a jury member; the girl, aged 14, was a contestant. She won in her category. I was responsible for taking my district’s group of children back home. It turned out the girl was practically my neighbour; she also knew my own children, who were also winners. What is perhaps more important, they were the same age. She became a frequent visitor at our house, and I quickly learned a few salient facts about her very nice family. None of them were humanitarians; no foreign languages either. So I became her go-to adult in everything professional. I was her unofficial term-papers, then graduation paper advisor, lending books, reading her writings, and training her for public presentations. She finished school with straight A’s, entered the local university, graduated with honours, and became a teacher at a foreign language school for adults.

During her first year of working, she would stop by regularly to share her concerns, to tell me about her own ideas regarding teaching, and to go through her list of questions. So I learned a very important rule for any mentor:
• We need to listen carefully to what our younger colleagues say. Yes, we may understand the problem once we hear the very beginning, but we need to give them an opportunity to formulate their own worries, to give voice to their difficulties, and to see our willingness to support them. Sharing your problems with a friend is like making them twice smaller.
• We need to give our protégées an opportunity to talk about their own ideas before we offer any solutions. A fresh outlook may turn out to be beneficial for ourselves!
• If, like my young friend, a colleague comes to you with a list of questions, be sure to try and answer all of them. “I don’t know” is a non-answer. Sure, sometimes we really have no inkling, but we are experienced seasoned professionals. We know how to make a poker face and say something wise.
• We may do our research later, either to find more answers, or to check the news, or to work at a topic which fascinated us thanks to the conversation with our colleague.
• In any educational system, mistakes correction is an integral part of the whole process. Unfortunately, sometimes showing students what was wrong becomes the central point. I believe it is important to show them what was RIGHT. You did not manage to explain this or that theme well, and they still make the same old mistakes? Are they eager to learn from you? Did they master another aspect? How do you think you achieved that? Can you use your own findings when explaining this very difficult task again?

Mentoring, as any other activity, takes time and patience. Even if you are not paid for it, is it in any way rewarding? Yes. Listening to somebody younger, watching them go through the same hardships you went through many years ago, you relive your own youth. Since they work with a different generation of students, using other tools than you used, you may get a lot of new ideas for your own work. Shaping a budding mind is gratifying. You progress from a revered adult to a trusted mentor to a good friend/colleague. And like in my case, the experience may be mutually beneficial. My protégée does not teach English, but she began studying English as her third language thanks to me; I introduced her to TE site, among several others. She assured me that learning Italian is easy, and I bravely embarked on an online course. We meet regularly not only to discuss our language teaching concerns, but also to share what we are doing as friends.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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