The Top 4 Benefits Teachers Should Seek from a Mentor

All across the country there is a growing dedication to classical liberal arts education, especially to curricula that have at their center careful reading of great texts, seminar discussions, and clear expository writing. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that, while selecting the best curriculum is one thing, teaching it well is quite another.

Every humanities teacher can benefit from a good mentor. But it is worth asking this question: What should a classical liberal arts teacher look for in a mentoring session? Here are some top things for you to look for from your mentor.

First of all, the session should be directed by someone who has at least the following qualifications:

  • A depth of experience with teaching students and training teachers

  • A mastery of classics and modern classics from Homer to Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, the Founders, Austen, Twain, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor and Seamus Heaney

  • A passion for teaching those great texts

The second key is to be clear on what benefits you should gain from mentoring. Here are the top 4 things you can expect from a top quality mentor:

#1. Clear how-to advice. A good mentor has been to the proverbial rodeo many times and can help you anticipate the challenges of teaching. For example, teachers are often stumped about how to get a non-participant to join in a discussion. Too often they rely on marking checks down in their gradebooks or announcing the numerical value of participation, with the hope that the student will be motivated by getting a good grade. A good mentor will know that motivating the reluctant discussant is most likely about developing the trust that comes from a robust teacher-student relationship. Students need to know that you are interested in their progress. They need their teachers to listen to them. And they need regular coaching that speaks to their strengths and deficiencies. Good mentors understand that. Out of their experience, they can help teachers guide their students to the next level of proficiency.

#2. Vision. Every teacher ought to have this mindset: What should my student look like at the end of my course? What skills will the student have--what knowledge of the order of things, what understanding of the human condition? The best mentors have a vision for where you are headed with your students. For example, a good mentor knows the best ways to read human character in fiction. Students are too often taught to read a story and place a character on trial. Take Homer’s Iliad. Here is a typical question asked of the epic:  “Should Achilleus have given up the body of Hektor to Priam?” A good mentor will identify that as a weak question. Setting a character on trial distracts the students from the text and foments a habit of moralizing. A wise teacher will direct the students to the text, into the details crafted by the author and ask a better question: “Why did Achilleus give up the slain Hektor?” That is a “motivation” question. And the only way to get at an answer is to work carefully through the text. In this case, a close reading tells us that Achilleus saw his own father’s face in the face of the grieving Priam. That image freed him so that his anger gave way to sympathy. You want students who find compelling evidence and see the human experience at the heart of a good story. Among the priorities explored in mentor meetings, good mentors will help you envision that kind of skill and guide your students accordingly.

#3. Encouragement. A good mentor will say directly what you are doing correctly and what might need improvement. Let’s take the quality of your leadership in the classroom. You should expect feedback along these lines: “Dave, I had a chance to look over the questions you use to open discussions, and I think there is room for significant improvement. Here is a question that is too vague: ‘So, how did the reading go last night?’ The problem there is that the question doesn’t guide the students to focus on the text. Let’s work up a better opening question.” On the other hand, if things are going well, you should expect feedback that charges you to keep up the good work: “Dave, I really like that opening question where you direct the students to a specific passage in Rousseau and ask them to unpack how he handles Hobbes’ position on what makes right in politics. Getting them to stick to the text and to carefully follow the author’s line of thought is paydirt.” Any important skill that you need to develop in your teaching can be clarified and improved through good, encouraging mentoring.

#4. Friendship. Good mentors are true friends, and true friends seek the good of each other. A good mentor empathizes with colleagues, shares a love for students and for great discussions on great texts, generously shares time and insight, and has a strategic plan for each meeting while allowing your questions and needs to significantly shape the exchange. Mentoring is not lecturing. It is not impersonal. At the heart of a good mentor session is genuine conversation and a personal touch. While good mentors seek what is effective, they relate to their mentees in a way that has love at the center. In other words, mentor meetings are not chiefly occasions to convey information; they are, at heart, human occasions, colleague to colleague, friend to friend. Mentors and teachers have that humanity in common. The friendship you have with each other perfects the encouragement, vision, and advice you receive.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy.