My First Great Mentor Teacher

My First Great Mentor Teacher

By Timothy Dohrer

“Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching's great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn.” 
― Parker J. Palmer 

Our candidates just completed their Student Teaching, so I’ve been thinking a lot about my own experience, which has taken me back almost 30 years to Spencer, Indiana and Tom Kinzer.

I was a 20-year old undergrad English and Journalism major at Indiana University who decided he wanted to be a teacher. The School of Education treated me a bit like a number. They had so many candidates, and I was a College of Arts & Sciences student rather than a School of Education student, so they did what most programs do and just tried to find a placement for me anywhere they could. Luckily, I was introduced to a local English and Journalism teacher at an event whom I immediately liked. As I was desperate to find a placement, I asked him in the moment if he ever took a student teacher. He paused, smiled, and told me he had done so before but was a bit cautious based on past experience. But he was willing to think about it. I called him a few days later and was thrilled when he said yes.

I was quite fortunate to have Tom Kinzer as my mentor and cooperating teacher. He was a great English and Journalism teacher at a very small rural high school in southern Indiana. He drove 45 minutes to school every morning to be one of three English teachers in the entire school. He taught Introduction to Journalism, Newspaper, Yearbook, three English classes, and Independent Study for seniors. He was a big man with a full beard, very Falstaffian, but incredibly intelligent, gentle, and kind. In that rural school where only 20% of the seniors went to college, he was an anomaly. He met every student on their terms, gave each one his undivided attention, and challenged them to think, reflect, and act.

But being a great teacher doesn’t necessarily make you a great mentor. It is sometimes difficult for teachers to explain how they do what they do, or to know how to help someone else become the teacher they need to be. In my current role, I get to watch dozens of teachers step into the role of mentor and I can tell you it is not natural or easy. And it wasn’t easy at first for Tom, especially on our first day together.

I arrived in January on what happened to be a teacher in-service day. Tom welcomed me into his classroom, a pretty typical cement block room painted yellow because it was an interior room with no windows. He had already prepared a small table and chair for me to use as a workspace, just next to a smaller interior room that served as the newspaper and yearbook work room and storage space. We sat together there for about 90 minutes, and Tom described his students, classes, everything they had done up to that point. He also outlined in detail the units he had planned for me to teach for the next 10 to 15 weeks. A bell rang and he suggested we go to a local pizza place for lunch.

There was a rather awkward silence between us as we went out to his car, drove to the restaurant, and got our food and drink before sitting down at a table. Certainly, I was overwhelmed with information! But I was also feeling a little worried. How would I be able to do as good a job on these lessons as Tom could do? As a new teacher, I wasn’t familiar with some of the content or activities or assessments he had just described. It all felt very outside of myself and my comfort zone, but I needed to accept it and get ready for the next 15 weeks.

And then I noticed that Tom was also being very quiet as he chewed on a piece of pizza. He took a drink and said: “I need to apologize to you. I just spent the last two hours telling you how to be a teacher and what to teach. This is your student teaching, not mine. You need to have freedom to choose what to teach and how to teach it. I’ll give you advice and let you know what we are required to do, but from here on out, this is about helping you. Is it OK if we start over?”

I remember feeling a great sense of relief come over me. It was this great lesson in empathy, self-reflection, and humility. Tom knew what I was feeling and had also caught himself doing exactly what he didn’t want to do. And more importantly, he owned it, said it out loud, and then acted to make it better. The two of us spent the next several hours brainstorming and co-creating 15 weeks of units and lessons, some I would teach on my own, some I would team-teach with Tom. It also marked the start of a great partnership and mentor-student relationship between us. 

One of the earliest pieces of advice Tom gave me symbolizes this moment and his absolutely correct approach to mentoring (and working with kids). He said: “You need to decide what kind of teacher you are going to be. Are you going to be a ‘Sage on the stage’ or a ‘Guide on the side?’” I’ve heard that phrase since, but that was the first time, and I’ll always ascribe it to Tom. I was also able to watch him enact those words every day with students and with me. As a mentor, Tom Kinzer allowed me to find my own path, always supporting my decisions and asking probing questions so I would think critically about them. As others have said of him, he would clasp his hands in front of his bearded face or behind his head, look out into the air, pause, and ask the question that always seemed to help me find a solution. That’s what great mentors – and teachers – do.

Since then I have taught around 2,000 students, worked with thousands more as a teacher and administrator, and helped hundreds of preservice and experienced teachers, administrators, and parents. Every lesson or workshop I design and facilitate starts with what I learned from Tom Kinzer. My goal these days is to try to be as good a mentor to my colleagues as Tom was to me. It is a high bar. But when it happens, when the light bulb goes on or someone says “thank you” to me, it makes me smile inside and reminds me why I get up every morning.

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