My fifth year working as a resource teacher I co-taught in a classroom with a Charles Mingus poster hanging at the back of the room. The poster said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”. At the time a large part of my job was modifying curriculum to support my students in accessing and participating in the instructional activities of a content area class. I often felt undervalued, not by the young people I was working with, but the other teachers, and school staff at my site. When I saw this poster something clicked for me. I realized, I believed what my colleagues said to me: that I was dumbing down curriculum, or making things easier for the young people I was working with. The poster helped me identify something I strong believed. It was overwhelmingly awesome (in the true definition of the word) to support a student to access a new concept or idea.
I had a similar moment, that shifted my thinking, at the alternative to detention program (atdp) where I mentor. In conjunction with the YMEJ grad seminar I have been mentoring with a group of women for the past six weeks. My initial workshop I was shocked that my knee jerk teacher qualities came out. I wanted students to learn, I wanted students to listen. I was calling young people in the program students—even though the program is not affiliated with a school. When I applied for the YMEJ seminar over the summer one question in my interview was about how I thought of mentorship, or defined a mentoring relationship. My response was a traditional model of mentorship that is one on one, where one person is positioned as a knower, or mentor, and the other person holds the mentee or learner role.
Since that conversation I have come back to the idea of the fluidity of mentorship and how the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable. As a teacher, I often thought about how much I learned from my students, but I think it was in a trite way. As in, “Wow, these kids have so much they can teach me.” In this context I still positioned myself as the knower, and I while I was not shocked to learn from my students, I did treat the moments as a type of novelty.
As I continue my working with the young people and staff members at the alternative to detention center I hope to channel some Mingus and value the awesomeness of simplicity. Going beyond making a concept simple but also honoring the moments of being human. How can I come to a space and value each individual without imposing my own agenda? How do I extend an authentic invitation that emphasizes a dualistic mentorship role with the young people at the ATDP? To keep it simple, how do I be myself in a way the invites others (especially young people) to be themselves with me? I hope to begin to think about answers to these questions but for now, here is some Mingus to enjoy.
Charles Mingus — Self Portrait in Three Colors