The Privilege of Mentors

I worked as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Mennonite University for 13 years, and as an adjunct faculty member at Bridgewater College for five years. Prior to this employment, I attended graduate school at a small, liberal arts institution, while teaching high school English and Photojournalism. Now, in my third year as an assistant professor of education at Bridgewater College, in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, I am going on my 21st year of being steeped in the culture of two different independent liberal arts colleges.

Over this time, I grew to privilege nurturing a sense of community on the campus where I serve, by focusing on the individuals in my midst at any given time. I strive to lift up the teachers in communities connected with Bridgewater College, by collaborating in an effort to advance teacher education. I care for individuals and the community and shoulder the responsibilities that come with participating in a democratic society that fiercely protects the “equity of access to knowledge,” because I have been mentored at these liberal arts institutions by some of the finest people I know.

In the last two paragraphs, I used the pronoun “I” 9 times, but to be candid, it’s not all about me. Dr. Mark Hogan mentored me through my graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University, and his mentoring went far beyond being my advisor. Following graduation from the masters in education program, he mentored me by writing with me to submit an article for publication, and he nominated me to serve as an alumni on the Committee for Teacher Education at EMU. Later, when he moved to Bridgewater College, he invited me to employment opportunities there, he suggested I pursue my Ph.D, he served on my dissertation committee, and both encouraged me and challenged me from the start to the finish of my defense. I’ll always remember how he drove from Nashville, TN to Blacksburg, VA for the sole purpose of  hooding me at graduation. Dr. Hogan hired me as co-director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Academy at Bridgewater College, and he poised me to be in the position that I am in now. As I sit in his former office, typing at his former computer, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the time he spent mentoring me.

Other fine folks have mentored me through the years, and I aspire to mimic their work ethic. Dr. Don Steiner at EMU invited me to serve as an adjunct, invited me to be inducted into Phi Delta Kappa, a local board on which I now serve, and challenged me with rigorous projects like taking a random sample of EMU’s Action Research Projects and reviewing them for writing quality based on the university’s rubric for writing standards. Dr. Cathy Smeltzer Erb trained me to serve as a university supervisor for student teaching by observing side by side with me in high school classrooms. She took the time to talk with me as my adjunct responsibilities increased to over half time, and I learned through her how to guide graduate students through action research, by attending to details, and providing feedback collaboratively with Cathy as I served as a teaching assistant in her Action Research class. Finally, Dr. Jean Hawk, who now serves as my department chair was once my graduate professor for multicultural literature. She shows me through her leadership how to work hard, think critically, and be aware of and sensitive to power differentials.

Parker Palmer (2007) echoed my feelings when he wrote in The Courage to Teach,

Looking back, I realize that I was blessed with mentors at every crucial stage of my young life, at every point where my identity needed to grow: in adolescence, in college, in graduate school, and early in my professional career. But a funny thing happened on the way to full adulthood: the mentors stopped coming. For several years I waited for the next one in vain, and for several years my own growth was on hold. Then I realized what was happening. I was no longer an apprentice, so I no longer needed mentors. It was my turn to become a mentor to someone else. I needed to turn around and look for the new life emerging behind me, to offer to younger people the gift that had been given to me when I was young. (pp. 25 – 26)

While these words resonate with me, what he says next is where I aspire to be each day,

Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn. (p. 26)

It is in this spirit that I strive to nurture future educators.