My first year in a Montessori environment was as an assistant to a seasoned, and I believe, enlightened 3-6 Montessori guide and mentor. I say “enlightened”, because Sue embodied that “lovingkindness” that Dr. Montessori promoted in her writings and is attained through inner spiritual transformation. Sue’s every interaction with the children was imbued with this lovingkindness, and as a newbie without any clue whatsoever about Montessori or the role of the assistant, I was lucky to be mentored by such an incredible guide.
Since that seminal year, some twenty plus years ago, I have reflected on the role mentors in my life, especially as I have now been on both sides of that coin, as the mentor and mentee.
The word “mentor” originates from Homer’s The Odyssey. Before Odysseus heads off to fight in the Trojan War, he appoints an advisor named Mentor to his young son Telemachus. I found this etymology poignant and apropos as the time mentors and their mentees spend together is a journey filled with unexpected challenges and delights.
Just as in the story of Mentor and Telemachus, mentors today are in a position to guide, coach, and protect their mentees. And while the stakes may not be as high as that of the mythological Mentor, mentors in Montessori environments are an essential part of the professional growth for every adult working to improve their practice.
In my career, I can count many, many mentors that have guided, coached, and protected the growth and development of my Montessori practice. Some of these mentors were appointed by the training program in which I obtained my 3-6 and 6-12 credentials, while others were informal mentors such as colleagues that challenged the way I thought of my practice, or an assistant that gave me feedback on how I might approach something different. I can even count several friends outside of Montessori as mentors.
Not only am I incredibly grateful for opportunities for growth these relationships provided, I am also grateful for the modeling I absorbed that I was then able to apply in my own role as a mentor to those around me. Today, as a formally-assigned mentor to several new teachers at multiple levels, and the informal consultation opportunities with colleagues, I delve into the art of mentorship and have a few things to share.
First Consideration for an Effective Mentor
The first condition for effective advising mentors may consider is that of setting appropriate expectations. Checking my own expectations is one of the ingredients in creating a safe learning environment. If I have inappropriate expectations of my mentee, they will pick up on it right away which creates an untenable position whereby they are likely trying to please me, rather than focus on the task at hand which is addressing a specifically identified task to improve.
Outlining the “nuts and bolts” of when, where, how, and especially what the goals of the relationship entails is an important part of setting the stage for conditions for success. I find out what communication channels work for them, what their “hot topics” are that we need to tackle, and I provide any resources I think will best support them to address the challenges they have identified as causing them the most stress.
Part of this condition for success is to collaboratively identify a goal. I like the framework of a SMART goal, which is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant to the mentee, and time-bound.
Clearly communicating all these expectations for communication are necessary so that both parties are well-informed and can attend to their relationship and the goals they’ve set. And as Brene’ Brown says, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”
Second Consideration to be an Effective Mentor
The second condition I cultivate is to set my mentee at ease, letting them know that they are on a journey, one which is shared by me, driven by them, and not judged. Being vulnerable with my mentee, such as revealing past or current mistakes, resonates, and models a growth mindset. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Third Consideration for Mentors
Whether the mentor-mentee relationship is formally appointed (such as in an Assistant-Lead Teacher, or Intern Teacher-Practicum Consultant, or Teacher-Program Director), or informal such as a colleague or family member, it is essential for the health and efficacy of the relationship to identify that when conflict arises the team needs procedures to work through conflict.
The mentee might not agree with the advise of the mentor. The mentor might jump to an incorrect conclusion of the root cause of a mentee’s practice. There are many opportunities for conflict to arise during a coaching situation as this Zone of Proximal Development where the coach is nurturing new habits and ideas, can be stressful and wrought with dissonance. Relying on a previously agreed upon protocol to address conflict can create a path of successfully connecting with each other. This might be as simple as agreeing to push through the conflict with the trust that you’ll see the other side together. Or to set up a phrase in advance that allows you to pause the conversation to reduce charged emotions before moving forward. Or in some situations, it may be helpful to write down a series of steps to work through the conflict such as using active listening steps.
Facing the hard stuff is essential to improvement, so setting up in advance how you’re going to address differences is important.
Fourth Consideration for Effective Mentorship
Mentors are in a really important position to deliver constructive feedback that could in fact, change the way the mentee sees themselves, their students, their environment, even their future. In this, it’s imperative that mentors understand how to craft the delivery of effective feedback. For this, I rely on a simple acronym, STUN-R. Feedback must be specific, timely, understandable, non-threatening, and for it to really matter, lead the mentee to revise what they’ve previously done. You might have noticed, this feedback loop closely matches the conditions for setting a goal.
Fifth Consideration for a Montessori Mentor
The final condition that I believe is truly helpful for an effective mentor-mentee relationship, occurs when the mentorship is coming to a close and both parties work to identify what happens next. I find this an important step to my formal mentor-mentee relationships, and one that is less important in my informal as they’re based on the foundation of a relationship by choice and time.
As Montessori pedagogy is more of a research-practitioner model which relies on lifelong learning. As a mentor, I find it my duty and calling to inspire those that I advise and coach to continue to pursue their passions and to cultivate knowledge and wonder in the world around them. In this, creating a pathway for mentees by providing resources and even conversing about who might be better poised to step in as a new mentor is an essential part of the continuum of learning.
I think this last consideration creates the condition for every Montessorian to pursue lifelong learning. Everyone needs a mentor, and in becoming a mentor to another, we also deepen our understanding of, and appreciation of our journey.
-by Tammy Oesting
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 25 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, art education, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and serves Montessori globally through her company ClassrooMechanics. AMS certified 3-6, 6-12