Mentoring Momentum: Insights from a Seasoned Educator

Math professor talking with female student next to a chalkboard

Two weeks ago, I got to chat with one of my college professors. He’s retired now, but he still keeps tabs on many of his students from over the years. In the days before voicemail, email, discussion boards, e-learning, and more, he still managed to mentor so many of us. Dr. B. and I ended up talking about how the world of education has changed rapidly with technology. Yet, we agreed, in some key ways it has not changed.

It’s been (gulp!) more than 25 years since I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and spent my first years in the classroom. I reflect on that time and wish I’d known a few things about myself, about teaching, and about my students. I’ve learned a lot about myself as each year goes by. And, I’m working on things that were only figments of imagination when I graduated. I now use technology that makes what I had in college seem archaic.

All the greatest technology doesn’t matter, though, when a new term rolls around. The new term always makes me question whether I’m ready. Did I miss anything in my materials? Can I meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body? What is really important about education? How can I be a better educator? What lessons did I learn from Dr. B. aside from math?

First of all, always work from your heart. Get to know your students and spend time learning about who they are as human beings. I’ve taught middle school, high school, and higher ed in both the university and community college setting. I realize we are all juggling learning outcomes and assessments, meetings, etc; however, if you read the research in just about any topic related to success, you’ll see references to the importance of students building relationships with others in their educational community. Often times, others can see things in us that we can’t. Dr. B. still thinks it’s funny that he told me during my second week of my freshman year that I’d end up a college professor. Meanwhile, I was wondering if I’d even make it through the first semester in the midst of “how am I ever going to do all this?” He could see something in me that I didn’t see yet.

Dr. B willingly shared his expertise, time, and interests. He never hesitated to listen to students, eat with them, ask how they were doing, challenge them to try new things, push them academically, and encourage them. And yes, I remember other professors, some only by name, others by face. But those that mentored me….I will always remember them. Your students will remember this about you. Your students will remember how you made them feel, whether they felt cared for by you. I frequently hear from former students. When I listen to what they remember, I hear that it was that I cared about them — that I encouraged them, worked hard to help them, and listened to them. He took a personal interest in the mentoring relationship.

Dr. B. also reminded me to be open to surprises and new ideas. He took a bunch of us each year to a student mathematics conference and challenged us to explore new ideas. He challenged us to make connections beyond the textbook. Even though sometimes he didn’t “follow the book,” we learned a lot about the subject as well as how to teach so others want to learn. He asked us questions that sometimes he didn’t know the answers to; but the process had us digging in the library trying to find tools for some possible solutions. He modeled professional behavior in the field. In my father’s words, “you only quit learning the day you die.” He exhibited enthusiasm for learning.

Find a mentor for yourself. We don’t need an advisor just in college. We all need someone who can support our growth, both professionally and personally. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors along the way, and I treasure those relationships.

Find a colleague who will give you honest feedback and help you fulfill the vision you have for yourself as a teacher. We often don’t know what we need to know. Find someone who challenges you and encourages you to grow. On the days where you feel ineffective and overwhelmed, that person can help you re-focus. Often others are far better able to see the “whole picture” or step outside a tricky situation and think objectively about solutions. One of my teaching pals shares her own struggles and frustrations with similar issues as a professor of science; sometimes we find answers, and sometimes we don’t. But we both feel better for having shared the journey. And sometimes she reminds me I’ve done what I can feasibly do; the students have to step up to the plate for their part in the educational journey.

Keep studying. Don’t give up learning yourself! This doesn’t mean you have to constantly strive for a new degree. It means you take some time to read the latest research in your field. It means you listen to a speaker about neurological research and learning, or read articles on this blog regularly to learn about new ideas and trends. Try some new technology. Attend a workshop on a new topic. Read an article that challenges you. Stick a motivational quote above your desk. Keep the fire for learning burning in yourself so you can kindle it in others.

When the newness of the school year begins to fade and the “routine” sets in, find those people and resources that reconnect you to why you are doing what you do. Learn more about how educational leaders “Make it stick.” The media surrounds us with stories about failing schools, struggling students, and more assessments. The bottom line is, however, that for every negative story there is a positive one. There are successful students behind which stand motivated, passionate educators working hard to affect their world.


About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.

Read more of her articles about math, ICTCM, and quantitative reasoning.