The Original Mentor

When we think of mentoring, we Classicists tend to think of the relationship between the disguised Athena and Telemachus in the Odyssey. This young man’s father had been gone for twenty years. He was surrounded by hostile suitors for his mother’s hand in their own home; he was unsure of how to assert himself, unsure if Odysseus was even his father. Talk about imposter syndrome! Athena appears and reassures Telemachus that he is indeed the son of the great hero and that he can find a way forward. She gives him confidence, shows him the steps to take, and gently paves the way to his becoming a more confident, resourceful individual: his father’s son indeed.

What I wouldn’t do, we might think, for such direct and powerful guidance. Oh, if I only could provide such protection for my own students and friends! While we may not have the goddess of wisdom intervening in our lives, we certainly can find protectors and advisors who will stand by our side. Perhaps it is a formal request such as signing up for the WAFLT or ACTFL mentoring program. Whether by a two-way or a traditional mentoring model, each strives to match you with someone who will listen to your problems, help you flesh out your ideas, and find the best route forward. Perhaps you have been assigned a mentor in your school building or district or have found a teacher down the hall from your classroom who fills the role of confident and advisor. Perhaps it is a retired friend, a parent, or even someone outside the profession who helps you see your day-to-day efforts in a new light. And don’t discount the idea that someone younger can be a mentor—their fresh ideas and perspectives can help us reach new levels in our own (professional) lives.

Whatever path mentoring takes, whether we are guiding a student or being guided by another, mentoring takes a certain amount of vulnerability. We have to admit we might need help, or at least be willing to take the help that presents itself to us. The ability to take such help is, in fact, a sign of our own inner strength. Even offering such help to another is a sort of vulnerability—we could have our help rejected, after all. Sometimes, like Telemachus, we might push back against the suggestions or question the assistance being offered. That testing and exploration is a part of our own growth as we work to find the path for ourselves, and a good mentor will let us probe, challenge, and make up our own minds in the end.

I hope that all of you will stop to acknowledge and thank the mentors in your lives. I hope that you all will take the time to serve as a mentor for a student or colleague. Having someone with whom to talk safely is invaluable with the many stresses we face as educators and life-long learners. We all need to find and to be this sort of counsellor for one another. Good luck finding your own image of Athena as you enact and receive the guidance of a mentor!

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