This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.

I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

From Monitors to Mentors

Last August as we sat in our school library and brainstormed procedures and protocols to keep our school a safe and orderly place, I could not define the uneasy feeling that stopped me from fully participating in the conversation.  We talked about what our cafeteria, hallways and parent pick up areas should look like, sound like and feel like.  We made a list of what our expectations of ourselves as teachers were and we all agreed to them.  We agreed on the rules, posted them where we would be reminded of them and committed to enforce them.  The whole time what was going through my head was: Why are we here?  Is our job only to monitor these kids during the eight hours or so that they are with us so they won't hurt each other and/or damage any property?  Or are we here to teach them how to get along and respect themselves and their communities?  Are we merely monitors or should we act more like mentors?  The job of the monitor is to enforce the rules.  It requires no personal relationship with the those monitored.  A monitor is not concerned with what came before and what will come after the rule is broken.  A policeman is a monitor.  The guy at the airport who checks your passport when you try to get into the country, is a monitor.  Both respectable, important, valuable jobs; but they are not mentors, they are not and never claim to be teachers.  To a monitor the rule is more important than the person following or breaking it.  To a mentor it is the individual that is being guided that matters.

My good friend and amazing teacher Andrea says school is fake.  What she means is that everything we do in school is to prepare us for the real world.  Skills, knowledge, rules and procedures have no value in and of themselves.  School is the training ground for someday putting them into practice authentically.  The playground, the cafeteria and the hallways are just as much a part of our schooling as the classrooms with the whiteboards and the desks.  Our job as a mentor is to guide children to connect the dots between the abstract concepts of the classroom and their real-life applications in the world.  The school building provides their first foray into that real world.

A monitor stops a child running down the hallway and reminds them to walk.  A mentor sees this simple rule as a way to teach children how to behave in public spaces, how to respect others and think how his behavior affects the safety and comfort of others.  I don't know, maybe I am reaching too far.  But when I have these kinds of simple conversations with kids that explain the logic and purpose of why we do the things we do, I feel as if I am contributing to a world free of obnoxious drivers, loud neighbors and inconsiderate people who don't want to wait their turn in the movie line.

In her blog post on Community, Katie Keir  comes clean about what really matters in a classroom and how instead of trying to manage students, she tries to build a community.  Our schools are a controlled, safe and manageable setting where we can practice building community, so that we can send out individuals that can contribute productively to their own communities, wherever they may be.  And real communities need more mentors than monitors.

Where to stand in the classroom

I remember the moment exactly.  I was about 8 years old, standing in the kitchen of this rental house we lived in while my father was building a house for us.  My mother is at the sink and for some reason she tells me this story:  One day a man took his son to Prophet Muhammad for advice.  Apparently, the boy had a problem with overeating and could not control his intake of dates, the staple food of the desert people.  He wanted the Prophet to council his son against gluttony.  Muhammad tells the man to go away and come back the next day.  When they return the following day, Muhammad admonishes the boy and teaches him a lesson in moderation.  The grateful father is puzzled as to why this conversation could not have taken place the day before.  When he asks, Muhammad replies:  Yesterday, when you arrived, I had myself eaten a large amount of dates.  I could not, in good conscience, reprimand your son for doing something that I had done myself.

I come back to this story often.  It is my guide in my personal relationships as a friend, as a wife, a mother and a teacher.  My motto is:  You cannot ask anyone, especially children to do things that you, yourself are not willing to do.  Anything less, is hypocritical and children have a super sensitive antenna that detects hypocrisy and renders the accompanying talk completely ineffective.

When it comes to teaching, this mantra of "don't ask them to do what you won't do yourself" has become my guiding light.  I can't ask students to embrace reading as the most critical skill of their life, if I am not a critical reader myself.  I can't ask them to read widely and broadly, if I don't examine my own reading diet for variety.  I cannot possibly unleash the writer inside them, if I don't put pencil to the paper often enough to know that writing is the most complex mental task that we perform and it cannot be taught in a one-size-fit-all fashion and in isolation from reading and thinking.  How can I possibly ask my students to think mathematically or scientifically, if I don't engage in that kind of thinking? In short, I cannot be a teacher, if I am not a learner myself.  When we stand not in front of our class as someone who will impart knowledge, but instead next to our students as a fellow learner, we get closer to their ears and their hearts.  And maybe we will both learn better from each other.