A Mentor’s Legacy

Tiffany Woodall is a graduate student at Union University, completing the Master of Urban Education Program. She is a resident at Memphis Teacher Residency (memphistr.org) and teaches third grade at Sherwood Elementary School in Memphis, TN. In the pictures, everyone is wearing hats because it is TCAP spirit week, and this was “Thinking Cap” day. TCAP is the standardized test for the state of Tennessee. Tiffany is wearing the white sweater and Sarah is wearing the orange cardigan.

This blog is a reflection of her time on specific things she’s learned from her mentor over the last eight months. It will be particularly applicable to student teachers finishing their undergraduate or graduate commitments and preparing to teach on their own or to first or second year teachers who have had a mentor.

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Two years ago I googled “teacher residencies” and stumbled upon a website for the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), a program with a mission to cultivate excellent urban educators, restore communities and bring justice to a long-broken education system in the city of Memphis. With a B.A. in journalism and limited teaching experience, I applied. Since May 2014, I’ve studied the cultural foundations of this beautiful city and learned how to become a teacher-leader in my classroom. By the grace of God, I and my cohort of residents have made it to our capstone course. Here I am, in love with Memphis and with urban education, about to finish my year-long residency and earn my Master of Urban Education from Union University.

I’ve spent eight months in my mentor’s third grade classroom. I’ve watched her establish culture, interact with parents, resolve conflicts, and collaborate with a team of six teachers. Soon I’ll be launched into a solo career. As I reflect on my residency and look forward to accepting my first teaching position in a few short months, I’m humbled by how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve yet to grow.

My mentor’s name is Sarah, and this is the legacy she’s left me:

  • Tell them you love them. Sometimes we’re afraid to open up to our students. We’re afraid to show them we’re human. But that’s what we are, and we come with feelings. There are myriad ways to show love, but only one way to say it: I (your teacher who sometimes wants to pull her hair out) love (feel genuine affection toward) you (my student, even on your worst days). Tell them often.
  • At yourself. With your kids. About the chaos of this profession. You will find yourself in situations at which you can choose to laugh or to cry. Choose to laugh.
  • Respect your principal. When there are 30-40 teacher-leaders in one building, there are bound to be disagreements about what’s best and for whom. But when your principal makes a decision, you respect it. You’re allowed to disagree – you have a beautiful mind that may see things differently than others in the profession. But in your disagreement, remember that your principal is operating under gross pressure from a board, who’s operating under gross pressure from the state. Remember that your principal is not perfect, and that her job probably leaves her feeling alone much of the time, on an island by herself in that school full of teacher-leaders.
  • Discipline without emotion. When you fall in love with your students, you become invested in their well-being. There will be a day when your favorite (we all have them) student misbehaves and requires your discipline. Don’t make it an emotional event. Narrate the behavior requiring the discipline, apply the consequence, and move on. Reconnect with that student as quickly as possible to remind them that you’re on the same team. Discipline is a necessary and valuable part of educating children. Leave your emotions out of it.
  • On any given weeknight, after an exhausting day of teaching equivalent fractions to a group of eight-year-olds, you might have to call three parents, complete and file RTI paperwork, submit grades for progress reports, register for an upcoming field trip, adjust lesson plans for the following day because your students don’t understand equivalent fractions, prepare for an IEP meeting, inventory your technology for your librarian, and let your dog out, eat dinner, wash a load of laundry and sleep (hopefully). There are competing demands placed on us every day. Learn to prioritize them. What needs to be done right now? What can I do during my planning period? What can I do next week? You are one person. Take care of yourself.

IMAG1290_1Those are just the highlights, of course. Spending the year with Sarah has given me incredible insight into teaching. She’s given me confidence in going forward, and she’s coached me well as I’ve stretched and grown.

As you wrap up your semester or year, reflect on what’s made you so excited to take a stab at this job on your own. Your mentor is an invaluable resource. He or she has invited you into a sacred space of learning and offered you the opportunity to fail and to grow there. That’s priceless.

As we approach Teacher Appreciation Week May 4−8, take some time to reflect: What legacy has your mentor left you? Then tell your mentor or write a thank you note to let him or her know that the time and effort and emotional energy he or she has invested in you have really helped you.

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