Mentorship is an integral part of becoming a teacher but… I find the more a relationship like that is legislated, the less effective it becomes. I was officially designated to be a “mentor” for two new teachers this past year by my school district. There were lots of forms for them to fill out and I had to attend a two day conference for the job. At the end of the day, probably the most help I was to either of them was showing them where the bathrooms were located.
There’s something almost adversarial about being told “You don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground, but here’s the person who is going to show you both your ass and the hole and how to tell the difference.” If you’re the new teacher, you now have something to prove; if you’re the mentor, you are now in the position of being some kind of font of knowledge. It’s a weird way to start any kind of professional relationship.
Mentors are far more effective when found naturally. I’ve been a teacher ten years come this fall and while I still have teachers I look up to and respect, I’ve only ever had one I considered to be truly a mentor to me, and that teacher was Michelle Abels.
I went to both high school and college with Michelle’s daughter and when I found myself living back at home and substitute teaching in the Hudson Valley after grad school, Michelle and her husband Art took me under their collective wings for the duration of my living in OCNY. That time spanned about eight months before I got my job teaching for New York City Public Schools but in that short run I probably learned more about being a teacher from Michelle than I ever did in grad school.
Michelle taught me how to run a classroom… not just how to teach lessons but how to organize the physical space. She taught me how to organize the kids! She showed me how to glory in each and every student, even you had a student who was a gigantic pain in the rear end. Finding something special about them, giving them a goofy nickname and then committing to it, that was the key. Commitment. Commitment to your space, commitment to your students, commitment to yourself, in a roundabout way. Michelle had a big personality and she used that as effectively as a surgeon uses a scalpel. She made her students love her. I still do a lot of that stuff today in my class and it’s all stuff Michelle Ables showed me.
Moreover, Michelle made me feel like I was a good teacher even though I was shit. I don’t say that to bring myself or anyone else down but first year teachers are always shit. You need about two or three years before you’re competent and maybe about three or four years before you’re good. Part of the way you get good is by having mentors like Michelle who talk you up, have your back, and show you things, even when they’re probably not even aware they are showing them to you.
For example, this past school year, I was featured on NPR for my comics and again, in a roundabout way, my teaching. While there are a bunch of people I thank for having that experience (my wife Ellen definitely was the one who made me aware about the whole “Secret Lives of Teachers” thing), I don’t have the temperament or the wherewithal to do something like that if it weren’t for Michelle, who made it very clear to me in the early going that it’s important to do good things in your classroom… then find ways to make the community aware that good things are happening in your classroom. Doing that makes things better for the school, makes the kids happy… and honestly, it’s almost better job security than a union can offer you.
Michelle was never-failingly nice to me. She had a wicked sense of humor, and was great at pointing out when the metaphorical emperor was wearing no clothes in her school district. She and Art welcomed me into their home, gave me rides home from work before I had my Driver’s License.
Michelle passed away a few days ago. When Ellen and I moved from NY State to Ohio, we had a discussion about people dying who I would make the trip back to New York for their funeral… outside of family and very close friends. I came up with three people: The leader of my Boy Scout Troop, my childhood best friend’s mom, and Mrs. Abels.
…so that’s where I am today. I wanted to say something about Michelle because she was a fantastic lady who probably changed the course of my life for the better. She did that and it was probably just another day in the salt mines for her, so to speak. I doubt she’d ever know the impact she had on me. Certainly I never had the stones to say it to her… so I’m saying it now, for what its worth.