Teacher vs Mentor

Earlier I came across this tweet talking about “teacher guilt” when your students are working independently.

And it got me thinking.

From the outside, the job of a teacher seems to be that of someone who is constantly, well, teaching. That is, we’re always taking information out of our brains and embedding it into the brains of our students. Before I started teaching, that’s the view I had. And I’m sure it’s the view that a lot of those outside of education have as well.

The more I thought about this tweet though, the more I started to see a distinction between two roles that teachers have in the classroom. Yes, of course we’re there to teach. But I think that we’re also there to mentor, and that role is often overlooked.

Teachers as, uh, teachers

This is what you went to school for. You learned about pedagogy and how best to implant information into students’ minds.

You practiced as a student teacher, working under a master teacher, until your supervisors thought you were ready for a classroom of your own.

You get up in front of a class and share what you know, hoping that your students remember it for the test next week.

And then you give students an assessment to double check that they remember, and go back and reteach if they don’t.

When people think of teachers, this is usually what they think picture. It’s the sage on the stage idea. And it works. It’s worked pretty much since one person first taught something new to another person. And it still works.

Teachers as mentors

Sometimes though it’s best to get out of your students’ way. There are times, especially with my more advanced students, that I feel like I’m just in their way. Like I’m actually slowing them down by trying to teach them.

By getting out of their way, I’m no longer a sage on the stage, I become more of a guide on the side. I become a mentor.

Think about student teaching. You cooperating teacher didn’t show you PowerPoints and give you tests. By that point you had learned what you needed to learn.  But you still needed to practice. Your co-op teacher was your mentor helping to guide you towards becoming a great teacher.

At some point we should be able to do that for all of our students. Not sure how it would work early in the year before they’ve been exposed to your content, but once they have a base line of knowledge students tend to do well, anecdotally, going off on their own direction towards their interests.

And in most cases when I’ve let students go off on their own, with a little bit of direction from me to keep them in their lanes, they’ve accomplished much more than I could have imagined. The quality of self directed projects are almost always several levels above anything that I’ve directly assigned.

Why not both?

I’d wager that if you thought about the best teachers you had growing up they would fall somewhere between a pure teacher and a pure mentor. They probably jumped between the two roles without even thinking about it and without most students even noticing it.

And I would argue that splitting time between the two roles is the ideal.

Yes, we have to teach facts. Sometimes we have to lecture. Students have to read texts. Students need to take tests and quizzes to make sure that they’re learning what they need.

But once our students learn what they’re supposed to learn for our courses, what’s the harm in cutting them loose to expand in whatever direction they’re interested?

Teacher Guilt

Also wanted to touch on this one a bit.

Teachers naturally become very connected to the success of their students. When a student does well, we feel good about that. When they do poorly, we feel bad and sometimes blame ourselves.

Not sure what the solution is, but just like we can’t take all the credit when a student goes off and does something amazing, we can’t take all the blame when something doesn’t go right.  The other side though is that it’s healthy to look back on student struggles and see if there is something you can do to help the struggler or something you can do next year with the next round of kids. It’s unhealthy to put all the blame squarely on your shoulders.

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