Sit Next to Me: An Invitation for Second-Stage Mentoring

There is a brief, tender exchange in the Talmud about second-stage mentoring between two great sages. In a debate about the minutiae of purity and impurity, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi offered a resolution of a dilemma before his colleagues. Engaging in rigorous debate can result in praise. It also summons the risk of rejection or intellectual humiliation. R. Zeira dismissed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, stating that his contribution to the argument was minimal. But Reish Lakish, the passage says, “honored him [R. Yehoshua ben Levi] and said to him: ‘Sit next to me’”(Hullin 122a). Rabbi Yehoshua was already a scholar of note, yet Reish Lakish’s gracious invitation for proximity was a gesture to mentor a younger colleague who still had room to grow.

We all have room to mature professionally but don’t always have opportunities for mentorship. R. Yehoshua ben Levi was lucky that Reish Lakish saw his native talents and tapped him for second-stage growth. For many of us, this kind of intense observation occurred only early on in our teaching careers.

Remember your first year of teaching? It was a real challenge. An administrator popped into your classroom regularly, gave you mini-assessments, invited you to experiment with new teaching techniques and gently helped you with classroom management. Knowing that someone wanted you to be a better educator created a sense of security and support while navigating your professional strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes outside organizations, like the Jewish New Teachers’ Project, are brought in to create an on-ramp by training mentors for first-stage teachers.

Now let’s jump to year five. Chances are that outside supervisory visits are sporadic at best. This is because mid-career teachers are often ignored. It’s rarely intentional. School resources may be thin. Administrators have to devote their attention to more inexperienced teachers, so mid-career teachers cannot necessarily rely on classroom visits to get better at their work. In Jewish day schools that do not have a culture of regular supervision, a visit from a principal at this stage in your career might even seem strange or unwelcome.

This is because by year five you’re likely a trusted member of the faculty. You know the school’s culture, tackle lesson plans with ease and have long figured out the rhythms and routines of the classroom, lunchroom and recess. You know the staff, the politics and the drama. You’re still challenged when a new curriculum is introduced or there is a departmental change of focus, but you can handle these changes routinely now that you are settled and competent. As a teacher, you are comfortable.

Yet getting too comfortable in the classroom can get in the way of the deepest learning and growth in position. Some teachers stagnate at this stage. If we adopted R. Zeira’s harshness, we might label such teachers mediocre. Most mid-career teachers have enough experience that they don’t have to focus on the rudimentary aspects of education and school culture, and can concentrate on new teaching techniques and content delivery. With the right kind of coaching and mentoring, they can take their performance up several notches. It’s precisely around the five- to seven-year mark when good teachers can become truly great teachers with the help of mentors—or not.

Many mid-career Jewish educators never benefit from outside mentoring. They may feel professionally isolated as they close the door to the classroom and come, over time, to deem the loneliness a normative aspect of teaching. Without second-stage mentoring, teachers may become less engaged in the work. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (in The Power of Full Engagement) cite research to demonstrate that the majority of employees in any organization begin disengaging from work after just six months on the job and even more after three years, just at the time employees initially learn the culture and later master it. If this is true, then by year five a teacher who is not growing professionally may actually be regressing.

Without second-stage mentoring, teachers risk becoming stale or lodging bad habits in place that may not be serious enough to warrant attention in a performance review but are evident to colleagues or students (or their parents). The mental models such mid-career teachers have developed may no longer be serving them well. As Francis M. Duffy writes (“I Think, Therefore I Am Resistant to Change”), “Left unexamined and unchallenged, mental models influence people to see what they have always seen, do what they have always done, be what they have always been, and therefore produce the same results.” This is when you want the veteran teacher equivalent of a Reish Lakish to say, “Sit next to me.”

Growth at this stage is more likely to come from a mentor than an actual supervisor. Laurent A. Daloz in his book Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners shares extensive research that “mentors are especially important at the beginning of people’s careers or at crucial turning points in their professional lives.” At these interstices, Jewish day school leaders need to invest in building mentoring pairs to grow educators and to retain them. Daloz reminds us that mentors do more than recommend teaching strategies; they offer support: “The mentor seems to manifest for proteges someone who has accomplished the goals to which they now aspire, offering encouragement and concrete help.” Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference describes such coaching as “really paying attention to people—really believing them, really caring about them, really involving them.” He believes the job of a mentor is largely “to facilitate, which literally means ‘to make easy’—not less demanding, less interesting or less intense, but less discouraging, less bound up with excessive controls and complications.”

So what can you do if you want second-stage mentoring but are not receiving it in an official capacity? Here are three possible paths forward:

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. So ask. Sometimes cultures of supervision come from the top down. But sometimes they come from a grassroots push from teachers within schools. Asking a principal to come into your classroom regularly and share observations is not an act of vulnerability but an act of responsibility and curiosity.

Seek an outside mentor. In his article “The Good Mentor,” James B. Rowley observes that “most teachers with 10 or more years of experience were typically not assigned a mentor, but instead found informal support from a caring colleague.” Don’t wait until year 10 when you might be courting burnout. Find outside guidance early. It can be essential to your success.

Identify a peer mentor within your school and observe each other regularly. You’ll both get better. Having an educational ally can help in processing challenging moments in the classroom and beyond.

New research produced by CASJE and Rosov Consulting identifies mentoring as one of the most prized contributions to teacher development: “Networks, cohort-based professional development, collaboration with colleagues, mentoring, and effective supervision were named as the experiences and opportunities that had been most valuable for participants’ professional growth” (“On the Journey: Concepts that Support a Study of the Professional Trajectories of Jewish Educators”). Mentoring opportunities are most nurturing and valuable mid-career when teachers know themselves and their classrooms well. It is precisely at this stage that mentoring and support will help re-energize educators and help them reach the next level of professionalism. Attention, attention must be paid.

Erica Brown
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2019