Co-Mentoring Our Way Back to The Basics

Chuck-0215-1by Chuck Sandy

“The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen”David Brooks

People toss the word mentoring around so easily that you might be tempted to believe that everyone is talking about the same thing and that it’s something easy to do. Be a mentor, people say. Find a mentor, others advise. That’s how you move forward, serve others, and solve our world’s problems all at the same time. If only it were that simple. I used to believe it was.

Do a little online research, though, and you will quickly find over fifty definitions of mentoring and tons of the motivational memes about mentoring that float through our social media feeds. But dig deeper, as I’ve been doing, beyond all that and widely into readings in education, psychology, sociology, and counselling and you’ll eventually find evidence-based research-driven mentoring models and training programs that will give you a better idea of what mentoring really is.

Although these models and programs all have very different aims and objectives, all of them have these three intertwined threads running through them: the centrality of relationships, the need for careful listening, and the call to be empathetically non-judgmental. Oh, and the idea that the learning is slow, very slow, so slow that it won’t even look like learning until the day it (maybe) becomes self-directed change.

At this point you might be wondering why I’ve been doing all this research and reading about mentoring and I’ll tell you the truth. Having found myself in a position in which people began seeking me out as a mentor, I most often got it all wrong and failed miserably. My most miserable failures as a mentor occurred when I talked more than I listened, misunderstood the relationship, wound up answering questions people didn’t have, and gave advice that wasn’t right. It doesn’t really matter how right my intentions were. Those failures happened.

This year, though, I had a wonderful opportunity. I had a health crisis which forced me offline and into a long period of quiet reflection and focused reading. Although I’ve now come out the other side of all that into a period of renewed health, I’m still offline for the most part. That’s because I’m trying to put into practice what I’ve been learning. Central to that is the idea of co-mentoring and a return to the very basics of community building.

In our ever more connected online world — a world in which everyone’s talking and no one’s really listening — it’s easy to forget how isolated and fragile so many of us really are. We attend a webinar or online course and feel thrilled that we’re a part of something bigger than we are. We build a PLN and marvel at how our ideas can so quickly spread across the globe. This is no doubt a wonderful thing and I’m all for it. But it’s an illusion to believe that these are communities unless we very consciously one by one and two by two make them so. That is possible. Enter co-mentoring.

A while back both Jason R. Levine and I found ourselves in a fallow period of our lives. We were between ideas and feeling kind of down about it all, so one day we decided we’d meet once a week on Skype to spin ideas, talk about our lives, and really listen to each other. What developed was much more than a friendship. We discovered a way of being together that’s empathetic, relational, and listening focused. No, that’s not a crazy idea. Tell me more. I’m listening and I hear you. Yes, I’ll be here next week. It’s hard work and it’s time consuming — but there’s real value in it.

That’s why I’ve also been building similar co-mentoring relationships with  Philip PoundTim Hampson, and Josette LeBlanc. While it’s true that Tim, Josette and I are building structures to help people find their calling and share their stories, and true that  Philip and I are working on EdYOUfest, the bigger story is the one about how we’re co-mentoring ourselves through the days. This means we’re not even thinking about fixing each other or doing much advising. We’re just building little communities of two or three while doing a lot of listening.

Meanwhile there are the people around me in this physical world and the little communities we’re co-creating and co-mentoring  together right here in the very area where I sit and write — but that’s another story. It follows the same principles but is much easier  because of the shared physical space.

In a wonderful essay on the Evidence-Based Mentoring site  Dr. Tim Cavell   writes that “the lesson here is that less is more … That means we might have to pull back from the urge to ‘sell’ ourselves to others, to be always entertaining or engaged; sometimes it’s best to simply be with those we love. That’s the essence of accepting others. Finding a way to simply be with them.”

That’s the real work. I know, that doesn’t sound like much and perhaps none of this is new to you, but as usual, I’m a slow learner and have had to learn the simplest things last.

Networked Mentors

angelos_profileby Angelos Bollas

I have been thinking a lot about this topic lately. I wasn’t sure how to choose who has been a good mentor for me and who hasn’t. The truth is that I am very lucky to have met and worked with great teachers, trainers, tutors, and professors. I have been taught by truly inspiring teachers who are dedicated and passionate about their subjects. I have been trained by skillful and talented trainers who inspired me to want to become one. I have also been guided and supported by college and university professors whose presence in my life has shaped the way I work and function professionally. So, naming one of all these people would certainly not be right.

It was then that I thought that I should write about my students. At the end of the day, it is for them that we do all the things that we do in our teaching, isn’t it? Of course, choosing one or two out of so many would be tough, but I am sure we all have those few students that have made a difference in our professional lives; not because of being exceptionally smart or showing excellent language skills, but rather by inspiring us to become better day after day. Then, again, such a person would not qualify as a mentor per se, so I couldn’t write about them.

Finally, I sat down and thought of a turning point in my career, a point when something changed as a result of my coming into contact with other people in this profession. This ‘something’ was more than just becoming better in what I was doing; it had to do with the way I felt about my job. It was really a point in time when I started thinking beyond the walls of my classroom, when I felt part of a wider community of English language teachers. And then it was obvious to me: I couldn’t write about anyone other than the wonderful people I connected with when I first went online and joined #ELTchat.

I still remember that day very vividly. I was doing my CELTA with CELT Athens at that time. One Wednesday Marisa Constantinides (@Marisa_C) talked to me about Twitter and #ELTchat. At first, I couldn’t understand much. Imagine that I was in the middle of completing my CELTA course so my head was full of new information anyway. Yet, Marisa was very enthusiastic about Twitter, telling us things like “Twitter is the hub of education, get out there, connect with other like-minded people.” So, I went home, created a Twitter account, and joined #ELTchat.

For those of you that do not know, #ELTchat is a hashtagged discussion on Twitter. ELT professionals from all over the world log into their Twitter accounts every Wednesday at 7 pm (UK time) and chat on a topic of their choice. It is fast and vibrant, and it offers its participants practical community-built knowledge. It is also more than just that. It is a caring community of colleagues. During my first attempt, not only was I amazed by the chat itself, but also by the people who participated in it and by their support. I remember chatting with teachers from many different countries (e.g. Japan, USA, Saudi Arabia), with trainers whose work and blogs were (and still are) much acclaimed, as well as other well-known figures of ELT. In addition to following the chat-related tweets, I started following all of the chat participants; some of them followed me back and we started exchanging ideas, tips, experiences and more on a daily basis.

These and many other people of the chat community have been more than a reference point for me; they have been the driving force that makes me want to do more. It is not only about being better, but more about doing more, trying things out, sharing your experience, helping novice teachers who need support, etc. Isn’t that what mentors should do anyway? That’s what I think at least. We are doing a job that does not offer much in terms of tangible benefits; it has, however, much to offer when it comes to getting the best out of one’s self and that’s exactly what #ELTchat people have done for me.
I am writing this in the hopes of helping another teacher feel as I feel. Before joining the chat, I was a local English language teacher whose only point of reference in this profession had been my own self and a couple of colleagues. However, from the day I joined Twitter, I started feeling as if I am part of a bigger team. My professional world has expanded and so many talented people have become part of it. In fact, a very active and important part of it. For all this time, I have been lucky to enjoy their company, their help, their experience, their ideas, their reflections, their support, and so many more things that I couldn’t possibly list in a single post. Most importantly, their presence is what makes me want to become better every single day. It is to them that I dedicate this post and it is to them that I owe my most sincere gratitude.

Mentor? Guide? Friend?

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

In my previous post about feedback, I started off by quoting a dictionary to get an understanding of what feedback is. This time, since “mentor” is an ancient Greek word, I’m confident that I don’t need to refer us to dictionary definitions. I can do the job of explaining quite well myself.

The word “mentor” takes us back to the Odyssey. Mentor was the person that Odysseus was confiding to. He was the person who helped his son Telemachus and Odysseus himself in crucial moments during their life journey. Mentor was, in fact, goddess Athena in disguise. As you can see, ancient Greeks gave a great significance to the role of Mentor and, in my opinion, that’s how a great mentor (as we know them now) should be.

goddess-305105_960_720

In my 20 years of teaching experience, I have come across some wonderful people who have helped me a lot and have given me strong incentives to continue on my path. I definitely look forward to the day when someone will consider me their mentor in their teaching career, but for now I will talk about three of my mentors who have shaped me as a teacher I am now.

Ms. Mary

The first important person in my life that I call a mentor came really early. I was 12 and started taking German lessons. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to take up another language. I cried and whined and refused flatly to attend those classes. My parents almost literally forced me to. But then I met her, Ms. Mary Karazisi, my first and only German teacher. She was a really strict teacher with a stern look, who was assigning tons of homework, but I just loved it! We talked about Germany, its culture, the trips that she had been taking. She set an example for me and since then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. That experience was the beginning of my studies of the German literature and language. I changed the language I teach in the process, but Ms. Mary has always been my role model. I deeply regret the fact that I didn’t manage to keep in touch, but I feel that I owe a big THANK YOU to her.

Olha

Olha Madylus was my first teacher trainer in English language teaching. A few years after I’d started teaching the German language, I was trying to find new ways to make my lessons more interesting. Back then, there were not a lot of seminars conducted in German for a teacher of German, so I attended a course in English at the British Council, hoping to find ways to adapt my German lessons to a more modern approach. That’s when I met Olha, the friendliest trainer I know. Her joyful attitude and simple approach made all the difference for me. On the first day of the course, she made sure that we all call her by her first name because we are colleagues, not trainer and trainees. It was very different from what I was used to, since all professors I’d had by then would prefer to keep a distance from their students. Olha taught me about games, projects, and songs. She taught me about having fun while teaching. To this day Olha is the liveliest person I know, ready to motivate and help teachers around the world.

Chuck

Last but not the least, I would like to give a shout out to Chuck Sandy. We are a million miles away but he has always been there in my difficult times, the times I needed a friend. Although Chuck has not officially been my teacher or my trainer, he has been my guide. Whenever I hit my blues, he always finds a way to cheer me up and give me a purpose, something to work towards, something to be excited about. His amazing talent to break up the ultimate goal into smaller, more achievable chunks, makes me forget the reason of what caused me much distress in the first place. I don’t know if this is a kind of strategy, but it works. I know that Chuck has been helping a lot of people in this or other ways and I know that he keeps doing it again and again.

Obviously, I don’t have a rigid or well-shaped idea of who a mentor is. I do know that for me a mentor is not just a person showing you how something is or should be done. Maybe my perception of a mentor is that of a person whose whole philosophy and life attitude can make a difference in this world. There may be just a few people with this skill and I’m really grateful that I have met some of them.

Reflective Practice II

In the second issue of the Blog devoted to Reflective Practice, Josette LeBlanc walks us through the process of setting up a reflective practice community, Matthew Noble shares a story of his creative experiment in reflection, and our new blogger Aziz Soubai offers a few practical ways to be a reflective teacher.

Josette LeBlanc
Josette LeBlanc

Forming and Sustaining a Reflective Practice Group

Matthew Noble
Matthew Noble

An Experiment in (Re)constructed Reflection

Aziz Soubai
Aziz Soubai

Three ways to be a critically reflective teacher

iTDi-circle

Forming and Sustaining a Reflective Practice Group

Josette LeBlancby Josette LeBlanc

Something powerful happens when teachers gather to talk about their teaching. I’m not referring to gathering at a conference or a weekend workshop, although these provide their own kind of inspiration. I’m referring to teachers who voluntarily meet on a regular basis to discuss their journeys in learning and teaching. In such a setting, a quality of confidence and community arises that provides individual members with the sustenance needed to keep teaching another day. Such gatherings have been happening all across Korea since 2011 with teachers in Seoul, Gwangju, and Daegu meeting at their respective Reflective Practice Special Interest Groups (RP SIGs) to share a better understanding of their teaching.

Since the formation of the Daegu group in 2012, I’ve often been asked what’s involved in creating and maintaining a reflective practice group. Upon the inception of our group, I wrote a post (Our Reflective Community) which partially answered this question, but its revision has been long overdue. It’s my hope that this new post will provide a useful roadmap for anyone interested in starting a group in their part of the world.

[Bryan Hale (standing), co-coordinator of the National KOTESOL RP SIG and Gwangju RP SIG, facilitates a meeting in Daegu.]
Bryan Hale (standing), co-coordinator of the National KOTESOL RP SIG and Gwangju RP SIG, facilitates a meeting in Daegu.

Why have a reflective practice group, and what is it anyway?

In the first edition of the iTDi Reflective Practice blog series, Zhenya Polosatova defines reflective practice as it relates to teaching as a way “to review one’s professional beliefs and values and, in this way, shape and develop a unique teaching style or manner.” A reflective practice group brings this practice into a community. In this community, teachers analyze teaching and learning experiences with the aim of understanding, altering, and improving their approach. Whereas teachers may only have had their own mind as a soundboard when reflecting alone, now they have the benefit of learning from the experiences of many colleagues.

Who comes to the reflective practice group meetings?

At each meeting you’ll find teachers from various contexts (i.e. private academies, universities, public schools, teacher training programs, etc.) who have a desire to develop their self-awareness and evolve their teaching. Since membership is voluntary, motivation to learn and grow seems to be quite high, especially since they gather on the weekends. We all know how precious a teacher’s weekend is!

Volunteer coordinators usually organize meetings. This can be an individual or group endeavour. The coordinators may also act as the meetings’ facilitator, though I encourage the idea of asking members to run meetings as well. This helps distribute the responsibilities more evenly, and also promotes a sense that everyone has an important role to play in the community.

How do you run a reflective practice group? 

A meeting usually starts off with an icebreaker. This is a good way to acquaint newcomers with people they may soon start divulging their most challenging experiences with.

In essence, a meeting is much like Chris Mares describes in his last iTDi post: we focus on a question or topic; we may record what we reflected on; and then we implement and review the results of the reflection.

This implementation and review may happen at the end of a meeting when each member creates a goal to work on until the next meeting. At some point during the follow-up meeting – either after the icebreaker or with ample time at the end of the meeting – members review their success or challenges with their goal.

Having a tangible model of reflection can aid this implementation and review. Referring to Zhenya’s post again, she shares an approach that can serve as a foundation for group meetings: the Experiential Learning Cycle. The cycle provides a concrete way to talk about reflection. Such a solid model can be valuable since it is easy for group discussions to get off track. The cycle helps members to come back to the intention of the group, which is to understand teaching at a deeper level.

As valuable as it is for members to discuss the content of their experiences, it is equally as important to help them find avenues to explore this content. For his post in this blog series, Stewart Gray, who is the coordinator for the Seoul RP SIG, shares a technique for reflection: reflective journaling. If this were the topic of the meeting, members might set a goal to journal during the month, and then share their experience at the following meeting.

Other approaches to these meetings may involve reading through articles or books on reflective practice, and doing personal reflections around this. The possibilities are endless. The important point is to stay open to what your community needs and go from there.   13576406_10157052003860375_892004945_n

When do you hold your reflective practice group meetings? 

Members preferably meet once a month and the duration is up to your group. The Daegu group meets for two hours every third Sunday of the month. This seems to be enough time, though we’ve been known to go over two hours when the discussion gets juicy.

Where do you meet

The location can be summed up in three Cs: centrality, comfort, and coffee (or tea, of course). It’s important to meet where it’s easy for the majority of people to travel to. Also, a private space is better than a public one, especially when discussions become a bit more personal. Finally, reflection absolutely requires refreshments.

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I hope this roadmap was helpful. If I missed anything, please leave a message in the comments below. I also recommend exploring Linda-Marie Koza’s group in San Francisco, USA, and Anna Loseva’s group in Tokyo, Japan, for different examples of how reflective practice groups are run.