I wrote in an earlier post here and in another here about collaboration and how I firmly believe that teaching is a group activity. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been mentored by a number of remarkable individuals. To my regret, I have not kept up with them as much as I should have, as I (or they) moved on from a particular job. About a decade ago, I began tracking down my former high school teachers who made a big impact on me. It was a powerful experience, for me at least, to be able to thank those individuals for the time and energy they put into me that I very clearly didn’t appreciate at the time. (One of my former teachers, who will remain unnamed, fell off her chair laughing when she found out I was going to be a teacher. She also told my future mother-in-law that she couldn’t believe Shirley was going to let her daughter marry “that Velto boy.”)
Like many of my high school teachers, some of my early mentors have died before I could really thank them. Hugh “Gunner” Gunnison and Peter van de Water both died a few years back – Peter in 2014, and Gunner earlier. Both had a profound impact on how I thought about teaching. In fact Peter is the one who actively encouraged me to use my theatrical impulses, honed by many years on stage, in the classroom. Sue Burwell, who died this fall, taught me the value of going above and beyond simple activities and how imagination could be the most powerful tool in a teacher’s kit. All three also taught me about creating a climate in a classroom where hard work would happen, but there could still be laughter and fun.
At this point in my career, I have gone from being the “wet-behind-the-ears” youngest teacher on the staff (I was 22 when I started teaching) to being one of the grizzled veterans. Not only could my students be my kids, some of my colleagues could be as well. This realization made me wonder whether I had repaid my mentors adequately enough by being a good and available colleague to others. (I won’t call myself a mentor, because I don’t think that’s a title I can bestow on myself. If others want to use it to describe me, I’d be honored…but that’s their right, not mine.) Early on, I decided I would adopt the “what’s mine is yours” approach. If I have a lesson you think you could use, here it is. If you are stuck and ask for me to help you figure something out, I’m happy to give you my time and thoughts. If I have a skill or knowledge of a task that you need, I’ll gladly help you learn it. By and large, this approach has served me well. Many folks have generously given back to me, enabling me to continue my education. But could I, should I do more?
This foray into impostor syndrome is brought to you by my doubts. Like many teachers, I suspect, I often ask myself what more I could be doing for my students – to better enable them to learn, to lessen their stress, to model curiosity and a love of learning. Periodically, I have similar thoughts about whether I am a good colleague. When I collaborate on a class (as I am currently in the French Revolution class), am I really bearing my fair share of the work load? Am I making whatever knowledge I have on various topics or tools available to my colleagues so that they know they can come to me if they have questions I might be able to answer? Am I doing this in a way that makes me sound like an insufferable know-it-all? (Probably – as a white, straight, male history teacher of a certain age, I’m guessing I was “man ‘splaining” before it became a “thing” but at least now I’m actively trying to NOT do that.)
I don’t have a way to answer my doubts definitively. I look at myself in the mirror each morning and promise to do the best I can on that given day. Thanks to my mentors, both young and old, I have great examples of being a good colleague. All I can do is try my best to learn from their example. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a positive impact on one of my colleagues as well.