I've taught creative writing for about three years now. Lately though, I've discovered that I was never cut out to be a teacher; I'd rather be a mentor instead.
Let's start with a definition of mentor, a term that comes from The Odyssey. Mentor was the friend and teacher to Odysseus' son Telemachus while Odysseus was away. At one point, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, inhabited Mentor's form to counsel Telemachus.
Mentor: "Because of Mentor's relationship with Telemachus, … the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague." - Wikipedia
A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with my boyfriend about public school - we were outside, in his backyard, drinking wine, meandering through both of our experiences in high school and middle school, sharing memories about classes and teachers. The conversation started rationally enough, but quickly devolved into me ranting about how much I hated my public school education. The thing is, it's taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that public school failed me pretty substantially. It took me a long time to admit it to myself that I was held back by the system.
After being homeschooled up until the sixth grade and essentially reading and playing all day, public school was simultaneously overwhelming socially, and at the same time, underwhelming in respects to academic pacing and subject material. There was very little creativity in the assignments and in what was expected of the students. Thinking or acting differently was frowned upon. I can't tell you how many times my fellow students told me that I "think too much," after trying to start an intellectual conversation with them.
In hindsight I didn't feel as though I was given enough independence to follow my own interests. I was told I was wrong several times in front of the whole class, even when I knew more about a given topic than the teacher. I wasn't challenged and by the time I got to high school I had mostly lost interest.
On the other hand, in math, I wasn't taught in a way that helped me get over my math phobia. All in all, it was a bust. Middle school was traumatic. High school felt like a holding pattern. Many people can relate to this, but it was made more bittersweet for me by the fact that my homeschooling experience had been so amazing.
I have a real fixation on equality. I thought that by admitting this lackluster education I was somehow saying that I was better than other people, than my fellow students; they seemed perfectly satisfied with their school experience. Why was I so special, that I deserved better? Was I uppity? Was I a snob? Who died and made me queen?
But now I know that it doesn't matter; it's okay to be pissed off: I could have achieved more, I could have taught myself better, had I not been held back by public school. And it's time to grieve and to move on.
I want to make it clear that in my adult life, I know a lot of great teachers in the public school system. Many of my friends and relatives have sacrificed careers in something more lucrative to teach in the public schools. I commend them. For my part, I know I'll never have the energy or strength of mind needed to be a great teacher to children. I'm not writing this blog entry to knock teachers or the good work they are doing.
I am knocking the idea of authority in general. When I say that I have a problem with authority, I mean that I have a problem with the concept in the abstract - particularly as it relates to teaching.
I never wanted to be a teacher. When I was getting my English literature degree, I realized halfway through the program that I didn't really want to teach in the public schools. Then, when I went back to school to get my creative writing master's I still didn't think I wanted to teach. But just so I could make sure it wasn't something I wanted to do, I decided to be a teacher's assistant for a professor in my creative writing program. I sat in on his Writing 101 class every week and helped grade papers, lectured twice and met with students outside of class to help them with their papers. Many of the kids in the class were second language learners, architecture and art students, just taking this class to get their degree. Some of them could care less, they just needed to get a passing grade.
I recognized almost immediately that my knowledge base was light years ahead of where these students were at in their writing and reading skills. I was an Authority. And man, it felt GOOD. I was like, holy shit, I know so much more about writing, grammar, literature and verbal expression than these kids! It was the first time in my life that I felt like people actually RESPECTED me for my knowledge.
I gained confidence through this experience and I thought: maybe teaching is something I want to do in the future. Maybe I could be a teacher!
But then, I started noticing something about myself. I started to get insecure. I felt like I had to live up to this expectation that I would have all the answers. I would blush and stammer in front of the class when I couldn't come up with an intelligent response. But in the end, it didn't' bother me too much because I was just the assistant after all. I wasn't the actual teacher.
Then after college, I taught at a local arts organization and felt silly. I wasn't dealing with people who had just learned English. These students were bonafide writers. They just needed guidance, encouragement and some good advice. I began to rethink my status as an authority.
Later that year I was asked to facilitate a writing group that had already been meeting in a member's home. At first, I had a lot of trouble defining my role to myself. Was I a teacher, a facilitator, a meeting leader? I didn't know. I battled feelings of insecurity. I felt I had to justify my fee by being all-knowing. For many months, I would call the group "my class" and then "the group," waffling between the two terms. I wondered if the group members liked me or if they thought I was a good teacher.
Then at my birthday party last year, one of my students, TJ, stood up to toast me. He said that I was the first person who had ever told him that he should try to get his work published. He said that I gave him the confidence to keep writing. He said that he was so glad that I was his mentor.
I was so touched. And then it hit me: that's what I am! I'm not a teacher at all! I'm a mentor. In the same way that I had helped my mentee, TJ, define himself as a writer, he had helped me realize that my real strength is not teaching and being an authority, but being a mentor. My role was not to be all-knowing, instead it was to be a guide. I realized that deep down I want to treat my students the same way I wished I had been treated in public school - as an equal; I want to help less-experienced colleagues, not stand at the lectern and be the know-it-all.
To say that my role as a mentor these last few years has been rewarding, would be an understatement. I have seen my fellow writers grow and improve. I've looked forward to reading their writing every week and am so glad they keep me around. I am there to help them as fellow enthusiasts. Not as students.