The Three Things Excellent Mentor Teachers Do

Ironically, excellent teachers often leave a lot to be desired as mentors to beginning teachers. Too often, their self-confidence tips over into an inadvertent egocentrism which leads them to think their less experienced charges should teach just like them.

And when their wide-eyed student teachers get excited about a creative and bold lesson idea they too often say, “That’ll never work.” And when a lesson doesn’t go well they tell their student teachers why.

In contrast, the best mentors know that teaching excellence takes many forms, therefore, it’s unlikely their student teacher is going to be a carbon copy of them. Consequently, they give their student teachers ample autonomy to find their way.

And when presented with a creative and bold lesson idea, the best mentors, even when they anticipate the classroom train jumping the tracks, say something to the effect of, “Let’s see how that goes.” They know student teachers learn best through trial, error, and reflection.

And when the classroom train sometimes does go off the rails, the best mentors channel Socrates and ask questions of their disheartened neophytes. In hindsight, what would you have done differently at the start of class? How might transitions have gone more smoothly? How can you make this good idea work better next time?

Because we assume mentoring excellence is intuitive, the best teachers don’t allows provide ample autonomy, allow for experimentation, and encourage self-assessment like the best mentors.

Follow the Leaders

Jordan Spieth, a 20 year-old, made $3,879,820 playing golf this year. Two mil more than Rory Mcilroy. Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick, recently gave an interview that anyone that wants to get a job, or wants to get better at their job, should read.

McCormick says: A job came open at a private club, Dallas Country Club, one of the best clubs in town. I started teaching a lot at Dallas C.C. I’d do 40 hours a week in the shop and another 15 to 25 hours a week teaching. It was a quick trial by fire on what works and what doesn’t work and do I like to do this? And I did. I got some good word of mouth and some good results. I was there three and a half years. Brook Hollow, a similar club a few miles down the road, was hiring an assistant-in the fall of 2003, I became a full-time teaching pro. When I turned 30, I wrote renowned teachers in golf and asked, “Would you mind if I came and watched you work?” I wrote Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter and Randy Smith and others. Over the course of six months, I traveled around the country and observed these great coaches and gained an appreciation of what makes them great.

The “secrets” to McCormick’s considerable success: 1) When starting out, he worked 55-65 hours a week; 2) He actively sought out better opportunities; 3) He sought out respected people with much more extensive experience and spent six months traveling around the country studying the “secrets” to their success.

McCormick elaborates: I sent (letters) out to the top 75 coaches in the country and I got 25 or 30 responses. Out of those 25 or 30 responses, I got 10 or 15 affirmatives that you can come watch, with stipulations. Some of them respectfully declined, which I totally understood. The most surprising was Butch (Harmon). He said, “Absolutely, come on down, spend a couple of days,” and I did. He was fantastic.

This week I observed an excellent Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, WA. After describing her teaching repertoire to the The Good Wife over dinner, she decided to carve out a day and drive 60 miles roundtrip to watch her teach. The Good Wife is already a very good Spanish teacher, but she wants to get better.

What do you want to get better at? Being a school principal, a nurse, a social worker, a swim coach, a fourth grade teacher, a pastor, a web designer? Make a list of more experienced and accomplished people in your field of choice, contact them, and carve out time to visit those willing to lift the curtain on their day-to-day work. 

Gordo Byrn is a cerebral triathlon coach whose writing I often like because it’s more philosophical than normal. I like how Byrn seeks out mentors for his personal life. For example, a relatively new father, Byrn has been intentional about sitting down with more experienced parents whose examples he greatly respects. He doesn’t observe them as intensively as McCormick did other coaches, but he asks them questions and listens carefully as they share parenting insights.

Byrn has carved out a great approach to life-long learning. Granted, it’s one that requires humility because it rests on the admission that other people have greater experience and are more skilled and insightful about what excellence entails. Byrn has taken the same approach to learning more about how to be a better husband; how to manage money better; how in the end, to be a better human being.

Follow McCormick’s and Byrn’s lead. Seek out mentors willing to share the secrets of their “success” whether in your public or private lives.