Reaching Out, Giving Hope: Mentoring Across the Generations

Posted on August 7, 2015


A few months ago, I started seeing teachers posting anecdotes online under the title, “Evaluate This!” in response to the current practice of evaluating teachers, even those who don’t teach in tested subjects, on the standardized (English and Math) test scores of students. Teachers and students are so much more than data points, and test scores matter little to students who are struggling to survive.

(Some details have been changed to protect the privacy of the students.)

When I posted a photo from class on my school Facebook page (Mizeddy), a former student, J, who was a sophomore majoring in art in college, noticed the talent of one of the artists, D, who was drawing a picture for a Mythology class project, so I invited him to email a comment to the younger artist. He emailed me what he wanted to say, and I sent it to the student. This interaction may have planted a seed for a mentorship, but at the very least, it demonstrates to the younger student that I was genuinely interested in supporting him in pursuing his interests and that I will try to connect him with people and resources that might be helpful to him. I was happy to forward a message to D, saying, “a former student and artist who noticed your artwork in the photo I posted from Mythology class on Facebook. He was quite impressed! I like to help students connect with possible mentors in colleges and careers, so I invited him to message you. Check this out! Pretty cool! :-)” From J:

Hi D, My name is J. I graduated from AHS in 2012 and now I’m a sophomore student at University [X] . You’re probably wondering why I’m contacting you, and I completely understand. I happened to see your drawing of Greek figures for Mythology on ms. eddy’s Facebook page (She was one of my all time favorite teachers; cherish your time in her class), and I wanted to tell you that I thought it was great. I know AHS can be a hard place to express creativity sometimes, but I want to encourage you to stick with it and pursue it if it really interests you. I often felt like my artistic support network was very small in Adrian, so if there’s anything you want to discuss then please feel encouraged to use me as a resource. I’m not sure if you want to pursue art as a career, or if you have college aspirations in mind, but I want you to know that from the small glimpse that I’ve seen, you have a definite talent and that [my university art program] would be lucky to have you. If you need any help with anything or just want to ask for general advice, please feel free to contact me at j—-or by adding me on Facebook. Sorry if this email seems a bit odd or creepy, I just like to keep an eye on artistic activity in Adrian, and I wanted to let you know that I think your work is great. Keep it up, and Go Maples!

When I saw D in class, I urged him to check his email. He did. It brought a smile to his face, and it opened a door to conversation. He told me that he was thinking of becoming a tattoo artist, and that he’d talked to someone about apprenticeship. We’d had a conversation about his tatto0s a few days earlier, because I noticed that he had new work on his left forearm: a flock of delicate birds had appeared; the ink was much more vivid than that of the work on his right arm. It was our first real conversation after I had read his intense memoir, on the subject of “the power of language,” where he had revealed that he struggled with some serious issues. I had been looking for a way to make a connection, to let him know that I cared.

J had recently remarked on my personal Facebook page, where I was posting in celebration of my 20 year anniversary at AHS:  “I can remember the very first time you saw one of my drawings in Mythology and how happy I was to see your reaction to it. I had never made someone that happy with a cartoon before.” He was a Freshman when he took Mythology class, and I remember how I looked forward to his written assignments, which always require an illustration–because it’s Mythology! I put his work on the bottom of the pile, a special treat to end with, because I knew I’d delight in his writing and especially, his illustrations. I don’t know exactly what influence I had on J; like D, he was quiet, so we didn’t have that many conversations, but through my written comments on his assignments, I let him know that I cared about him and was supportive of his interests.

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What neither J nor D knew was that they both suffered from depression and sometimes fell into despair. The reason I nearly cried with joy when J commented on that FB photo was because a day or two earlier, I had received an email from a counselor about D, asking me to be an advocate for him because he was dealing with some difficult issues. J had no way of knowing how meaningful his comment could be or that it was the perfect time for him to reach out to a younger artist. Another reason is that I was so moved by J’s compassion for and encouragement of a stranger. I was deeply touched by his willingness to reach out to a younger student.

I spent ten years participating in traditional sweat lodge ceremonies, where we ended every prayer with a phrase, “I am sending my voice because I want my people to live.” That phrase perfectly captures my motivation as a teacher and mentor; I send my voice into the world to nurture life, to cultivate love, to bring a sense of well-being to young people that they can share with others. Passing along J’s encouragement allowed both J and me to be advocates, to show a student in distress that he matters, to throw out a lifeline in a time of crisis. Interactions like this can save lives, and they will never show in the standardized test scores that are used to evaluate teachers. What is, on the human level, invaluable, is, to the number crunchers, irrelevant. Evaluate that!

One of the very special benefits of working for 20 years in the same district is mine and my students’ sense of history and the lifelong learning community we’ve created. My current students know that they are part of a tradition, because my former students DO keep in touch and come back to nurture those who come after them in a variety of ways. It took a long time to build all the connections I have in this community and around the world: a network of former students, teachers, and parents that I can call upon whenever it will help a student. These community connections take years for new teachers to cultivate, and, tragically, in districts with high faculty turnover, they will never exist. Unfortunately, we’ve entered a period when most new teachers do not, like me, come to a community, put down roots, and build a network that spans the generations. I hope that by teachers joining together and raising our voices, we can bring about the changes that will make it possible for the teachers who follow me to have careers in the profession, as I have done. Testing is not teaching. We need to put an end to evaluating students, teachers, and schools on test scores. Children are whole human beings who deserve voice and choice in their education, and they deserve teachers who can connect them to a caring and compassionate community.

“Big data can’t take the place of a caring teacher.” (Diane Ravitch)

When I was working on this blog a few days ago, I took a break and clicked over to Facebook, where Diane Ravitch drew readers’ attention to this blog from Michigan teacher, Bill Boyle: “It All Turns on Affection.”  He, too, reflects on the importance of human connection in education. It’s a good read. Check it out.