Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog An Ode to Mentors – Dr. Ellen's Blog

An Ode to Mentors

Posted on February 4, 2012 By

Student Comment:

I’m not sure if you are aware of this, Dr. Ellen, but you were one of my first teachers when I decided to attend community college at such an “advanced” age. I was truly a lost soul when I met you. You inspired me in such a grand way that I wept all the way home after that first night of class. I know for sure that I would not have pursued my degree with such determination had it not been for you.

Learning to laugh and to “think outside outside the box” are two incredible gifts that you gave to me, and they are ones I still treasure today. Thank you!

Dr. Ellen Responds

Teachers at all levels of life love to hear from students they have taught or mentored. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

I particularly loved teaching for some years in the Community College environment where I found myself in a position to help students as they also traveled down some of life’s rocky roads. I was able to do this through my ‘psychology for living’ classes.

The fact is, most community college students cannot afford to seek out family counseling, and what a bonus it was that the system could offer young adults such an opportunity to think about their many options (and difficulties) in life while also preparing themselves for jobs.

A TIP: Students should always seek out the best teachers available through word of mouth, which means talking to fellow students to find out which teachers are inspiring and which ones are not before taking any of their classes.

Then take courses from those inspiring teachers and let them fill you up with their energy and passion for the things that move them. For school is not all math and technical know-how despite what some may think. It is also a place to form world views.

I remember once offering a year-long course in family relationships to all rising seniors in a local high school. It was offered at no charge to the school system so long as it was mandatory for all students. I wanted to be sure that they graduated with some significant relationship skills, not just with computational and language skills. My offer was turned down because the school said it ‘already offered that kind of thing’ in its health curriculum. I THINK NOT. Schools are increasingly driven by standardized curricula within tight budgetary constraints, even though the colloquium that I was offering at the time was (1) free and (2) it had only the requirement that all rising seniors take it before graduating that year.

So much for the use of available community expertise.

So I turned to the state Community College system to see what I do there to help students navigate the relationship turbulence around them.

It was there in one of my night classes that I encountered Rosemary. She was older than the rest but not by that much in some cases; but she looked exhausted and she was obviously scared to death of what my class might require of her very limited resources.

She had no confidence in herself, no encouraging others around her, and she had nothing to pin her hopes on except possibly a passing grade if she studied hard enough despite having three small children and a crumbling marriage to manage.

When I looked into those tired eyes, however, I saw a person with huge passions and great ambitions, the kind of ‘stuff’ that made me always want to come back for more, semester and after semester.

The dialogues we had in those ‘psychology for living’ classes were profound and sometimes life-changing, and the lessons reverberated well beyond the walls of the building and classroom that we occupied.

This is what education is all about, isn’t it?

Psychology is one of the ‘soft’ sciences, meaning, unlike mathematics or engineering where hard numbers are crunched and combined, psychology is a relative field of study. You cannot chi square feelings no matter how hard you try; in fact, anxieties and relationship concerns defy standardization even though mechanistic minds still try to do that.

Education is much more about mentors, as I see it.

Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown was one of my mentors. And, like him, I have always tried to pass along the same kind of mentoring process to my own students.

Who you are is determined by the life trek you have taken to date.

If your intimate relationship network has been low-anxiety and encouraging, you will be an encouraged young adult with unlimited aspirations. But if that network has been abusive or destructive you will feel abused and perhaps even act out destructively in your interactions with others; and your aspirations will be limited.

Any pressing relationship anxieties that you carry with you into the classroom will invariably surface in the form of inattentiveness, irresponsibility, feelings of inadequacy, poor retention, poor student-teacher interactions and more.

Our educational institutions need to be more attentive to such things, and brave enough to reject Standards of Learning that inhibit good teaching and expansive classroom dialogue. There should be room for that in any field of study.

We need learning environments that take into account where each student is coming from – not just intellectually, but personally – and how they can learn to express themselves ever more fully. They need to be just as concerned with their prevailing world view as they are with the coursework they are studying. Not only that, but how they arrived at that world view and any consequences associated with it.

Schools do that in the primary years to a limited degree, but as a student moves through the educational system the emphasis is more and more on the digestion of facts and figures.

That is not an environment where exceptional students flourish.