Mentoring and Leadership: A Conversation with Beverly Chin
Slippery Rock University
I heard Beverly Chin, a past president of both the Montana Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of English, speak at the 1999 NCTE Convention, and I was intrigued with her ideas about mentoring and supporting colleagues. When she spoke of how mentoring is one of the ways in which those currently in leadership positions can nurture leadership in others, I was curious to learn more. Dr. Chin has, as she put it, worn many "leadership hats," and she is currently a professor of Teacher Training in the English Department at The University of Montana. During an extended conversation we had about leadership and mentoring, I explored with Dr. Chin how she began to view herself as a leader. She explained her ideas about the importance of mentoring and support for new leaders in the Council and in the profession.
WILLIAMS: During a keynote address you gave to the members of the Conference on English Leadership in Denver at the 1999 NCTE convention, I heard you address two areas of interest to me specifically, but also to many members of WILLA. The first was the issue of mentoring colleagues and the second was the issue of inviting, through our mentoring, many diverse voices into leadership roles within the Council. Could you explain how you personally became a leader in NCTE and how becoming a leader in NCTE shaped your views of teaching?
CHIN:When I first began teaching, back in the 70s, my first concern was doing well with my students and being an effective teacher. As I was mentored, and became active in the state affiliate within Florida and then later on in other states, I discovered just how important it was for classroom teachers of all levels to be involved with the professional organizations-to make sure we actually moved beyond our school walls, understood what we were doing and why we were doing those things with our students. So it was really positive for me to continually see the importance of policies and programs beyond the classroom and how they impacted my everyday work with my own students. When I became an active leader within NCTE and then became president of NCTE, I began to see all the important interconnections between state and local and national efforts. That was so important.
WILLIAMS:You mentioned that you were mentored into your local NCTE. I assume that meant you were invited, but could you talk a bit about that?
CHIN:That's right. My very first affiliation was in the Florida Council of Teachers of English when I was a classroom teacher. But at Florida State University as a student teacher, my professors Dwight Burton and John Simmons and Bill Ogila were very important in the Conference on English Education and NCTE. So from my very first days of even thinking about being a teacher, and being mentored into the beginning teacher program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, I had people who were active in NCTE, who were my professors, who encouraged all of their students to become active in the profession. As a student teacher in Milburne High School, I had classroom teachers who were also engaged in the Florida Council of Teachers of English. When they had conferences, I would go. I discovered the importance of sharing,, of getting to know people, and how much fun it was. I went back to my classroom very excited about what I had learned and eager to share with other colleagues who might not have had that opportunity to attend the conference. So from my very first days of being a classroom teacher, I was mentored both by my university professors as well as by my colleagues, other classroom teachers. They brought me right into the affiliate work.
WILLIAMS:There seems to be resistance in some places among school administrators and school boards to give teachers time off to attend conferences, and yet you relate how exciting and important this was to you right from the start of your teaching days.
CHIN:It's a limited view of what professional development means. I think it's a misunderstanding. Administrators do want teachers, classroom teachers in particular, to be the best professionals, but when we strive to do professional development for ourselves, from their point of view it's unfortunate that we have to leave the classroom. My perspective is that's a double message to teachers. We have to define our own sense of what it means to be a professional; we have to act on that; we have to share with others why we're doing what we're doing. And if it means attending a conference, or speaking, or going out and observing each other, if it means having teacher study groups, speaking to the media-all of those aspects of professional development are important. I think some people don't see all that as valuable and how it comes back to support excellent teaching in the classroom.
WILLIAMS:When budgets are crunched, it seems that eliminating those types of professional development experiences are the first things that administrators look to as a way to save money.
CHIN:It's intangible human resources that we sometimes fail to put the highest priority on.
WILLIAMS:You said that you noticed the interconnectedness when you moved from the state affiliate to the national organization. You also mentioned policy issues. Most of us, especially as beginning classroom teachers, don't seem very interested in or knowledgeable about policy. Yet the longer I am teaching, the more I see the impact of policy on what I do. I'm curious about that personally as well, what you learned about policy and what you meant about interconnectedness.
CHIN:For example, when I came to Montana in 1981, we were working on the new accreditation standards for schools and we were trying to get away from the typical "in order to graduate from high school you need 4 credits of English and seat time of xnumber of minutes. We were trying to re-envision how accreditation standards might look at the state level so that they would support good English language arts programs. We referred to the NCTE document Essentials of English-it was so important in giving us a vision for writing our own document in Montana in terms of English language arts. Instead of just saying students need four units of English, it enabled us in Montana (and in other forward looking states) to think about what English meant or what four units should encompass. We were able to specific for ourselves, as well as for others, what an English language arts program looks like. That was one of the ways NCTE helped our work directly in the state level in Montana. And as we looked at what accreditation standards should be for beginning teachers, we would look to the guidelines for teacher preparation out of NCTE and CEE, and we would begin use those standards in our own state standards for what beginning teacher programs needed to look like. So I think both from a classroom teacher interested in curriculum, and from a teacher educator's perspective, those kinds of things were important. And censorship was always an issue no matter where I taught. Understanding how policies and decisions across the United States impacted local school board decisions, class size and teacher workload was essential.
WILLIAMS:As you moved from being an English teacher in the classroom to NCTE state affiliates, to the national association, having leadership roles, (including your term as president of NCTE, the ultimate leadership role!) how did you personally feel about the transitions in role, and how were you helped or mentored as you took on increasingly influential roles in the organization?
CHIN:My move from a classroom teacher to a teacher educator was actually quite smooth. I always see myself as a classroom teacher. It's just that now I'm teaching on a campus at the university level as opposed to in a K-12 classroom. But I'm still in a classroom, and I have a lot of contact with students and with classroom teachers. To me it's very important that we see ourselves as part of that circle, that continuum. I was always active in my state affiliates-by going to conferences and sometimes by being a member of the executive committee of those states. I always presented because I saw that as an important way of sharing and learning. And I've always worked in committees of NCTE-CEE committees, sub-committees and task forces. I've always enjoyed being with people and doing important, good work. It was fun. And I learned so much that helped me as a teacher. When I was elected to the presidency of NCTE, I began by taking many deep breaths!
I began to look at those four years as pivotal, high priority, in terms of what service I could give to the profession. I never felt like I was by myself. I always knew that I was a member of a community and, even though we might have diverse views within that large community and within the profession, that in fact we were all committed to our students, to being the best educators we could be for our students. I always knew that I believed in life-long learning for my students and for us. That, to me, was very important in keeping me grounded-I was simply "a" spokesperson for the Council. I had this opportunity to share our values, our beliefs, our passions and our concerns with many audiences. And that people might listen to me differently as a spokesperson than they may have earlier. That is what made it so interesting.
WILLIAMS:You said they listened to you differently when you were in an official leadership role. How so?
CHIN:When we have a title-vice president, president elect, past president-we might be saying the very same things others say. However, because I have the elected office, because the membership has recognized or has chosen me to serve them in this way, other audiences outside the Council will listen differently That's why its important to have so many more people in leadership roles speaking both individually and collectively to all these other audiences. The more people who are saying the same message, the more important, the more impact it will have on people beyond education. I really had the great fortune to be an officer of NCTE when the NCTE/IRA standards for English language arts were published.
WILLIAMS:As I recall that was a pretty contentious time. How did that impact you, who had such a visible leadership role in the Council?
CHIN:Well it was certainly a challenging time. First of all we had to come to consensus within NCTE and within the organization of IRA. One of the things I'm so proud of is that NCTE and IRA were able to work collaboratively within those years in order to publish one consensus document, because I think it would have done a disservice to the profession to have a document come out of NCTE and a separate document come out of IRA, even if the documents might have had 80% or 90% similarity. The fact that they were two separate documents would have sent a message to both our profession and to the public that English language arts are not as integrated as we believe them to be in our hearts. Then it would be a label issue, a territory issue, which gets in the way. The standards document still continues to help local districts and states see all the connections among the English language arts.
WILLIAMS:NCTE seems to be a visible organization, one that gets its political feet wet. I've always appreciated the way that NCTE has been willing to talk about the hard issues, the difficult and complex issues, in a respectful way, and yet the organization does not seem to shy away from those issues.
CHIN:I think that's what gives NCTE its vitality. That's what keeps us reflective, and I think reflection is essential. This also related to the mentoring issue-reflection, going back to ourselves, making sure we understand why we do what we do and say what we say. We need to have an open, and courteous, professional forum. We can have difficult conversations. We may not always see eye to eye, but we have the opportunity to express our divergent points of view. From those discussions we can see where we have commonalties that we can work from, where we do have differences, and how can we respect those differences and build on those differences as strengths and not divisiveness. That's the strength of an organization, like NCTE, that has many forums. I'm very proud of our organization and its democracy.
WILLIAMS:I hear you talk about issues like diversity, hearing many voices, working collaboratively among typically hierarchies, not getting hung up on territory labels-those are some of the issues associated with WILLA, which was founded to investigate and advise the Council on the roles and status of women in the profession. Do you think that having women in leadership roles has added to NCTE's ability to recognize your point of view, that difference can be strength for an organization?
CHIN:I think every time we have another individual or group of people assume more responsibility and take risks we expand and grow from each other. More and more women were recognized as leaders or stepped forward and assumed that label themselves. When we assume the label as leaders ourselves, I think people begin to listen to us differently. Let me try to explain more clearly what I mean by that. I've had many conversations with people I've seen as leaders-classroom teachers, curriculum directors, people in education. And often when I say to them, "you are a leader; you are doing leadership work, you're assuming responsibility for leadership of tasks," those individuals will say, "Oh, no, I'm not a leader." And they don't assume that role even though they have all the characteristics; they're doing all the work that leaders do. They individually have chosen not to use the word leader for themselves. While I certainly respect each individual's choice as to what labels and features they want to put on themselves, what amazes me and gives me reason to think about this, is that when we do begin to think of ourselves as leaders, in the most positive, forward-looking, rich way, I think different things start happening in our minds and in our behaviors. That's where mentoring comes to the fore again. When I began to think of myself as a leader, I started mentoring other people very specifically. When I could begin to analyze myself, what I was doing and why, just by doing that, I became a mentor for other people.
WILLIAMS:So as you began to ask yourself, "What do I do, and why?" that process was what itself enabled you to help others as well yourself?
CHIN:Yes. That process was both essential for me as a leadership and in mentoring. It synergistic. It's like a classroom teacher who has a goal of helping students become reflective thinkers, but in the process she begins to look herself. We become reflective teachers. The metacognitive process just reveals so much more-it's not just good for students, but for u as teachers. It begins with us. It permeates our classrooms and expands to include our colleagues or other members of the profession both near and far. To me what is so important is that when people see themselves as important contributing members and add that label a leader, they're beginning to more broadly see themselves as people with influence, who can shape today and tomorrow.
WILLIAMS:Those of us who work in teacher education and work with classroom teachers probably have had an experience like you describe where we work with teachers, usually women who are doing incredible things for their students, but they are hesitant to give themselves that label. I find that troubling, because it seems as if they have so much to give, but they don't seem to understand that they do.
CHIN:That's why it is so important for those of us who do see ourselves as leaders to act as mentors, to have those conversations. All of us are at different stages in our lives and in our careers, and as long as we are always available and offering those opportunities to either be mentored or to mentor. That way we'll be more likely to be there at the right time for the right person to help them along on that journey. When I first became director in a writing project, it was at a time when there was no national or state funding. All of a sudden I had to become not only a public relations person to make sure that the Writing Project continued without a secure source of funding, I also had to become a fund-raiser. I had never worn that hat; I had never seen myself being out there, knocking on doors, asking school boards or administrators to fund teacher in the projects. I suddenly realized that when I picked up the phone and made calls to superintendents or school board members or principals that in fact I was becoming a fund-raiser. Now that wasn't a label that I had ever aspired to, but because I was so committed to having the Writing Project continue in Montana during its lean years I learned that skill and I became aware that I could raise funds. Or when I chaired the academic standards and curriculum review committee we were going through a very difficult time on our campus and in the Montana University system with general education. We were making a transition between one model of general education to a new model. Lots of conversations and compromises had to go on about what does count and what doesn't count, making sure all the campus departments and programs felt respected and could participate. When I stood up in front of faculty senate was asked difficult of challenging questions, I need to remember that I shouldn't take it personally. They were asking the questions of me because I represented a committee. I think it is being able to put on different hats-that challenges are to the hat, not to me.
WILLIAMS:That's an idea that seems difficult for many of us-that challenges are made to the hats we wear, or to ideas we espouse, but not necessarily to us as a person. If we could keep that in mind, it would probably help many of us be more productive, take on other roles, both personally and professionally.
CHIN:It's a skill I've developed over the course of my career so that I'm able to stand up in front of groups that may not share my particular personal beliefs. When I'm representing the Council, I knew that it wasn't just me speaking, but that I was representing many different people. I knew that we had had many difficult conversations to reach this point. My responsibility as an officer was to represent accurately and fully the consensus, and hopefully to have shaped that consensus. What an important learning opportunity. We have so much to learn and share with each other, both within and beyond the profession. We need every person's help in shaping that view and in getting it out to non-educators so that they can help us.
WILLIAMS:It seems to me that you believe that in order to speak to audiences outside the profession, who often have a great deal of influence in how we are able to work in our classrooms, we need a big voice, made up of our diverse voices, who are saying similar things to explain what is good for kids, how they learn and what an English language arts program should be.
CHIN:One of the important aspects of mentoring is that when we make explicit to our colleagues how we're thinking, how we're believing, by doing so we not only grow as mentors, but we help others discover for themselves what to keep and what to change. One of the ways I learned about how to mentor was when I was president of the Montana Council, I always encouraged board members to bring a new member or new person-a colleague, a methods student, a student teacher-to our board meetings, because otherwise you become a closed circle. What happened was that all the conversations on the drive over and the drive back-because in Montana we have very long drives-were talk about the things that were important to them not only in their teaching, but in their lives. And that in and of itself became mentoring and metacognition. I discovered that the more I talked about the way we did things at MATLA and why, the more I began to examine--what were high priorities? Were the ways we were doing things the most effective ways? What were new things we could be exploring? What did we learn from that meeting? How were we energized to go back and do more things with our students with our policies, with our school board members? I left meetings with more energy often than I came to them with. That's because we were with good people and doing good work. I think that's what professional development is all about too.
In all of the groups and projects I've worked with in NCTE, especially with the affiliates, there has been talk about the importance of conferences--people getting together to talk about good things and being mentored by colleagues. What this really means is being with someone you care about, trust, and value and doing good work. People often ask me, "are you a task person or a people person?" I think effective leaders do both--they gather people together who want to be together and also want to commit themselves to good work. I think NCTE has that. It has that through its assemblies like WILLA, and through its conferences like CEE and CEL, and through all its conferences and affiliates. We just need to continue to understand that so that we can get more teachers who have not had that opportunity to do that to be inspired by us and each other to have that experience. I think that once we've had that experience, it's something we always want and need and crave and should have. That's what bothers me when school board members or school administrators say "well, I'm sorry you just can't go to that conference, or you can't go to that staff development." They're denying educators the opportunity to get renewal. It denies them the opportunity to get re-inspired or to think differently. Sometimes we just need a different experience to ask a different question, a divergent question. To take a risk as a leader or as a teacher you need to have those opportunities. It makes us better educators.
We starve without poetry. It is the possibility of rejuvenation.
We used to sit in circles to quilt.
take Tupperware orders.
We braided rugs,
knit wool socks for soldiers.
I had a Tupperware party once.
We ordered green plastic spoons
while my daughter
fell down a whole flight of stairs.
These days we heave deep nets,
light torches to feverish brains,
write in circles like sewing bees,
pull paper over knees and write
stories of our ancestors, family trees.
We write about the blood between us.
We stain the sofa, like old wine.
vinegar and earth.
We write about sweating at night,
broken up between full moons
and children gone off to college.
Our bodies we carry out in bulrush baskets
after the flood, after we reach shore,
get up out of them finally,
and become queens.
Reference Citation: Williams, Lee. (2000) "Mentoring and Leadership:A conversation with Beverly Chin." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 3-8.