Finding Mentors Wherever You Go
It was January 2013. It was raining and cold. My car had broken down, and I had driven a roommate’s car to Central High School — more frazzled and harried than I ever planned to be on this momentous day. It was my first day of student teaching. My first official day as a teacher in a classroom. As I walked in, Laci Lemoine’s classroom overflowed with a cool energy; it was funky and colorful and full. On her walls, she had a quote from Don Draper: “You’re good. Get better.” I copied the quote down eagerly as I settled into my desk (my very own teacher desk!) and got ready for a day of observing and learning names.
Laci, like her classroom, was cool. She connected with her students without pandering to them — she was completely herself. She pushed me in ways I didn’t expect, scripting my lessons, scrutinizing the types of questions I asked, and surveying the materials I designed. She invited me to stay after school each day to run through my lessons with her so she could help me anticipate problems and learn to adapt. She was honest with me when I made mistakes, but she was also generous with her praise when I learned from them. She made me recognize that I was good but that I could always get better.
After college, I moved to North Carolina, where I began my graduate work in secondary education, this time working with two mentor teachers, Nikel Bussolati and Heather Barto-Wiley. I walked into their classrooms more confident (and less frazzled — my car hadn’t broken down this time), but, because of my time with Laci, I was open to growing even more. Nikel and Heather couldn’t have been more different to an outside observer. Heather’s room was a home; Nikel’s room was a hub. However, both women were the centers of their spaces. Once again, I settled in and observed, absorbing all I could from these remarkable women.
From Nikel, I learned to question the status quo. I learned to join school committees so that I could push back against policies that weren’t equitable. I learned to stand up for my students — to use my voice when they couldn’t. From Heather, I learned to “show my human.” I learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable in front of students, that opening up can build trust. I was continuing to learn how to get better as I prepared to take on my very own classes, and I was ecstatic to accept my first official job for the next year at the same school as Nikel and Heather. I felt safe and secure and continued to feel supported by these phenomenal women as I moved into year one. I was on my own, but I was not alone.
After a year of teaching in North Carolina, I was offered a new job at Ben Franklin High School, my alma mater attractively located just down the road from my parents and sister, which offered me the opportunity to serve my home community. Moving back to New Orleans, I first felt unmoored. What was I going to do in a school without my mentors down the hall or in the faculty lounge during lunch?
Thankfully, this fear quickly evaporated as I learned that the best educators are always mentors, regardless of physical proximity. So while I wasn’t Laci’s or Nikel’s or Heather’s student teacher anymore, I still could lean on them when I needed support. (Which was often… especially in the first two years.)
I also found new mentors at my own job. I learn every day from other teachers who are willing to share their ideas, their spaces, and their feedback with me. I find mentors whenever and wherever I’m looking in my school: I learn to be more flexible with myself and my students from Amanda Morehouse; I learn to craft careful questions from India Mack; I learn to keep having fun from Jay Weisman. Amanda, India, and Jay are three of many, many coworkers at Ben Franklin who continue to push me to grow. While none of them are my official mentors, and while I’ve outgrown the requirement of having a mentor teacher approve my lessons, I’ve never outgrown the desire to learn from other amazing educators.
Now, as we transition into this year of virtual and hybrid learning, I feel like a first-year teacher all over again. I need mentorship constantly, but the process has become more recursive; I give back as much feedback as I absorb from my colleagues — present and past. Supporting other teachers has become a way for me to reflect on my own practices.
So, find your mentors in your spaces and learn from them. As a more experienced teacher, it is my privilege to help mentor new teachers now, welcoming them into my classroom, consoling them after their car breaks down, and reminding them: “You’re good. Get better.”