As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.
I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.
When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.
But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened. An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.
The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.
Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher. My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.
My students rocked my world. I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with and for them. I grew up during that decade. I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.
Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.
For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search. I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.” Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.
When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.
So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?
Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship.
Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.
But many adults have. The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived. For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.
WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach. This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.
Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.