Teacher as Mentor

One of the most rewarding components of teaching is also one of the most challenging: mentorship. The teaching profession is unique from other vocations in that educators don’t have the luxury of Hollywood personalities to shy away from their influential labels as “role models”. Teaching is unlike many career professionals who must bear extreme stress at work and are able to conveniently compartmentalize their workplace drama by eschewing emotion and leaving some problems unsolved. For those of us in education, we cannot abdicate the assignment of tackling other people’s problems – and most often, we consider it a privilege. Educators wield a remarkable amount of influence over our students’ lives and the knowledge of our reach and impact makes us ever so consciously careful that our influence is positive. The capacity of the teacher mentor is often encouraged on a peer teaching platform, but is rarely referenced as an integral component of our job descriptions-particularly from the perspective of our lifelong impact upon some students. This is merely another example of the many ways in which teachers are taken for granted. But rest assured, it is a badge of honor that teaching is not limited by academic constraints. In fact, educators the world over are akin to vessels of God’s infinite love for humanity and one of the best ways to showcase this virtue, is via coveted role as teacher-mentors.

Ask any evolved adult to name their “impact educator”, and typically within less than a minute’s time people are eager to rattle off the name/subject/grade of at least one teacher who had a lasting imprint upon their growth and maturity. Often, the academic influence is secondary, if not altogether inconsequential to the strength of the personal relationship developed between teacher and student. This speaks volumes about how valuable educators are to the positive development of one’s psyche, and suggests that the teacher as mentor is a blessing for both teachers and student mentees. In my case, my impact educator was Lillian Williams at Snyder High School in Jersey City, NJ. She had a gift for inspiring her students and is/was perhaps my greatest motivation for being an educator. Though she is now an ancestor and I regret never sharing with her how invaluable her powerful impact was in my life, she is the quintessential educator-mentor, for whom I will always afford the credit she deserves.

As an active teacher-mentor, I have unofficially adopted more students (and unwittingly amassed more Godchildren), in my twenty-four years of teaching, than mere figures could even approximate. Because my career began as a high school substitute teacher, fresh out of college at age twenty-two, while working arduously until I could land a more permanent teaching contract…student mentoring was not an automatic, professional rite of passage. In fact to avoid the appearance of a lack of preparedness, I was careful to dress in full business or full African attire everyday and kept my classes extremely busy with rigorous lessons in each of the respective subjects I was assigned to cover. My initial year of teaching was marked by having been “baptized by fire” by the polar opposite joys and pains of teaching that one is faced with as a substitute teacher. At the outset it was easy to maintain a professional distance as an educator, which was to my credit given that there were only a few years separating my own youth and that of the high school senior students.  However, once I had been recruited by a founding principal to a premiere African-centered public school and  served in a long-term capacity as a middle school history/social studies teacher, I soon learned that relationships, not just rigorous academic instruction and mastery of classroom management, would be crucial to my success in the K-8 school environment.

Mentoring is loosely interpreted as the inevitable process of building relationships with your students as a means to coax their innate genius and engender high academic achievement as you, the teacher, effortlessly model the virtues of love, patience, compassion and authenticity. In successfully engaging the teacher mentorship model, your students in turn begin to trust your genuine investment in their success and they morph into the absolute best versions of themselves. The teacher as mentor is a multifaceted role, as you are part instructional leader, part parent, part social worker and part all-knowing and trusted guide who must intuitively diagnose all existing areas of academic weakness and then skillfully mitigate the void using your academic expertise. Not unlike other educators, I have taught students who were more than 3-4 years behind their grade-level reading proficiency benchmarks, who required extensive one-on-one reading instruction to even begin to attempt standard assignments. Likewise, I have taught an overabundance of gifted students who have performed well below their personal best because of pre-conceived, lowered expectations and having been repeatedly assigned a universal, albeit wholly unacceptable form of remedial “busy work”, which offers a vivid portrait of America’s vast mis-education. Adding insult to injury, among the large population of perpetually low-performing and untapped high-performing students – there’s a significant number of youth who are: hungry, angry, stressed, abused and disinterested in all things academic. Such challenging students must have their basic tissue needs met, in order to even entertain or attempt to successfully navigate the structured learning environment of schools. Thus, the only way for many successful educators to personalize instruction and ensure widespread success for every student, is to learn that it is incumbent upon us to authentically connect, as much as humanly possible, with each individual student while attempting to meet their corresponding needs. In doing so, educators assume the “larger than life” status of teacher-mentors; accessible to our students far beyond a mere year of classroom instruction. As a proud teacher and mentor to hundreds of students, across the U.S. (who I taught as either middle or high school students in Detroit, MI and Brooklyn, NY respectively) – I have the distinct blessing of having  hundreds of “children” who even in their adult years, still refer to me as their Mama Nefertari and afford me their love and respect as a positive or influential force. For this enormous gift . . . I am eternally grateful.

It would be disingenuous to say that it has always been easy to operate outside the imagined barriers which segregate instructing other people’s children with an equal level of fervor as nurturing them. Indeed, being a teacher-mentor has come at a great personal and incalculable financial sacrifice for those of us who have accepted these anointed titles and positions. At times, at the expense of my own family, and to their chagrin – I have contributed countless hours/days of free one-on-one academic instruction, accompanied families’ to a litany of hospital emergency rooms, devoted countless years of charitable giving by offering advice, meals, new clothing, sponsorship of family lodging and even materially supporting entire families’ during periods of significant challenge and stepped in as the parent, as deemed necessary to provide nurturing, in my coveted role as a teacher-mentor. Although it is scarcely known outside of the teaching profession, it is commonplace in this capacity to feed, clothe, nurture, house and to acknowledge very few limits in meeting the multifaceted needs of our students. On a daily basis, countless teachers have performed these acts of kindness and compassion as an integral component of who we are as God’s select agents of transformation. I harbor little to no regrets for having been a blessing, except in the rare cases of mentees who have grown up to be selfish, arrogant and/or professionally, financially successful “elitists” who fail to pay it forward, as was once so readily done on their behalf. Save an occasional ungrateful wretch . . . the overwhelming majority of former students who were the beneficiaries of teacher mentoring have morphed into the best versions of themselves and as evidenced by their heartfelt testimonials, are deeply appreciative and similarly loving in their ability to positively impact the world around us. Teaching is its own reward… and mentorship is like the icing on a decadent, rich and fulfilling cake.

I Teach, Therefore I Am. And rest assured, the world is a better place because of those wonderful educators who have successfully taught and mentored students. Asé!

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Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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