We held our selection meeting for the Spencer Mentor Award in late February, roughly two weeks before our office went to remote work and three weeks before state governors began issuing stay-at-home orders. We didn’t have an inkling how all our lives were about to be upended or how acute the need for mentoring would become—both inside and outside the Academy.
We had planned to announce and celebrate this year’s six Mentor Award winners at the AERA national meeting in San Francisco. There we likely would have read a list of their accomplishments and contributions to the field, which are extensive. We would have noted how they provide doctoral students and junior faculty with a wide range of professional experiences; how they carefully attend to issues of equity; how they help scholars negotiate their personal and scholarly identities; how they find ways to make structural or institutional change to improve the quality of mentorship for doctoral students and junior scholars beyond their immediate circles; and how they have done these things year after year after year, creating multi-generational webs of support.
But announcements and celebrations have taken on a new dimension during this time of crisis and change, a time when lives, careers, and learning environments all have been upended. Truth be told, during the past month, I have struggled to think much about work at all. Like most families, ours has been grappling with losses both quotidian and profound--the loss of planned celebrations and reunions; the loss of our school routines and community; the death of my husband’s mother, my children’s grandmother. I’ve watched my kids grieve and struggle, and they have watched me grieve and struggle as I have inexpertly blended my roles as mom and teacher and communicator of education research. I also have grappled with my own position of privilege, recognizing that while I feel out of my depth in this current moment, others assume I am capable of providing my children with an emotionally and intellectually enriching home learning environment—affordances I am keenly aware are not readily extended to families and communities of color. One lesson I have learned the very hard way this past month: It is well and good to read and write about environments that cultivate learning and thriving—but orders of magnitude more difficult to create them.
On that front, I have had a mentor of my own: my son’s kindergarten teacher, who, in the past month has provided not just a menu of learning activities for my son to complete, but the type of relational support that is at the heart of deep learning. My son’s teacher has checked in repeatedly to see how we are coping. She has shared her own grief over the end of the school year and uncertainty over how best to adapt our school’s progressive kindergarten curriculum to remote learning. She has produced daily videos approximating the class morning meeting--replete with musical introduction and cutaways to the class goldfish. She has created a crash-course for parents in kindergarten spelling and emerging literacy—techniques that went over much better with my kindergartner than all the phonics apps I attempted to ply him with.
During one check-in with her, I broke down. My son, an eager learner and happy-go-lucky kid generally, has refused to do much of anything besides “recess” (playing basketball) all day long. She suggested he was grieving and advised me to let him process grief in his own way. She said he would be fine, we would be fine, which was something I really needed to hear. She set up a Zoom call so he could teach her some of his basketball moves. For 15 minutes, they connected over his love of the game. In those 15 minutes, she also modeled a kind of compassion and grace that I hope to bring not just to home-schooling over the next few months—but to parenting generally.
I share this story of unexpected, fortuitous mentorship in a blog post about the Spencer Mentor Award because it strikes me that we all need mentors now more than ever. If we are very lucky, this moment of extreme dislocation and loss and heartache might also be a moment of collective learning; a moment where we learn to take better care of ourselves and one another and our Earth. And if it is to become a moment of learning, then we all will require new forms of mentors and mentorship. The mentorship that my son’s kindergarten teacher extended to me was at once essential and attainable. It was partially about what she did; but even more about how she made me feel. It was a privilege to feel cared for and invested in, a privilege extended to me by my well-resourced and amply staffed school district. Such care should be a basic right that we must extend farther and wider as this virus lays bare and amplifies deep structural inequities.
The Academy, with its deep valuing and institutionalization of mentorship, might be uniquely poised to model structured relationships of care to other fields, even those unrelated to formal education. Indeed, the extraordinary letters of support we received for this year’s mentor awards indicate that in departments and colleges and universities all across the country, scholars are dedicating their careers to cultivating the research, careers, and lives of their colleagues. The winners came from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and institutions. Their mentoring activities varied depending on their own skills and context and on the needs of those they mentored. But they all made their mentees feel supported, known, valued, and capable. Those are feelings we all need to feel right now—and that we all are capable of inspiring in others.
This year’s Spencer Mentor Award winners are: Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Cawthorne Chair in Teacher Education for Urban Schools, Lynch School of Education, Boston College; Kristine Jolivette, Paul W. Bryant and Mary Harmon Bryant Endowed Professor, Department of Special Education and Multiple Abilities, The University of Alabama; Chance Lewis, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Urban Education and Director of The Urban Education Collaborative at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Mike Rose, Research Professor, Social Research Methodology, Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles; William Smith, Department Chair, Department of Education, Culture, & Society, University of Utah; and Cally Waite, Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Director of the Social Science Research Council’s Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives Program.
Please enjoy the excerpts from their nomination letters shared below. Look for more testimonials on mentorship from our award winners on Twitter @Spencer_Fdn.
Professor Marilyn Cochran-Smith
My incredible experiences being mentored by Marilyn are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the impact her mentorship across her career has had. I’ve reached out to current and former doctoral students, collaborators, and colleagues across the field and have heard incredible stories and clear enthusiasm for Marilyn to receive this award (in total over 50 mentees and colleagues explicitly support this nomination). The descriptors used to describe Marilyn’s mentorship include: thoughtful, deliberate, consistent, tough (while kind and caring), unwavering, brilliant, and generous….One former student captured a consistent theme across all the stories I heard by saying, “Marilyn is one of those special mentors that looks after her students in ways that bring out the best of a person.” A successful scholar who received mentorship from Marilyn despite earning her PhD from another institution, illustrated an important impact of Marilyn’s mentorship stating, “Marilyn lives out her social justice stance through mentoring and making space for new voices in teacher education.” In sum, a former student captured what those of us who have been mentored by Marilyn distinctly feel, “Marilyn taught me more than anyone else ever has.” --Kara Mitchell Viesca, PhD, Associate Professor, Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education, Principal Investigator, International Consortium for Multilingual Excellence in Education
Professor Kristine Jolivette:
“Academia can be isolating when faculty remain in their individual silos, working alone in the office, fighting feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. Through our collaborative writing days, Kristine has demonstrated the power of collegiality, collaboration, and positive peer support, even when all are working on distinct, individual projects and manuscripts. Kristine’s mentorship has served as a catalyst, changing the culture of our college to one that increasingly values collegiality, support, and teamwork. Today, it is common for faculty from across the college to gather informally at coffee shops and restaurants to work and support one another; this shift has occurred because of Kristine’s mentorship. --Sara Sanders, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Alabama
Professor Chance Lewis:
Dr. Lewis has been purposeful in ensuring that we have a “seat at the table” whereby doctoral students are positioned to make meaningful contributions and provide feedback. For example, he hosts a bimonthly Urban Education meeting (20 yearly) whereby approximately 12 students, faculty, and staff are able to discuss upcoming events, plan collaborative research and grant projects, and build collaborative teams. Most importantly, Dr. Lewis checks in on our wellbeing while also holding us accountable for our research agendas. As a mentor, he maintains a perfect balance between demonstrating care and concern while also nudging us and motivating us to push through the rigor of research and publications. I walk away from his mentoring sessions both encouraged and motivated. --Sonyia Richardson, MSW, LCSW, University of North Carolina Charlotte, Ph.D. Candidate, Cato College of Education
Professor Mike Rose:
I cannot emphasize adequately what our phone calls, and when I travel to Los Angeles, our dinners, have meant to my ability to navigate my professional trajectory. But even more importantly—and perhaps harder to talk about—is the gift he has given me by revealing his own struggles with writing, his trust in sharing his works in progress, and his showing me that it is perfectly normal to stumble, to be unsure, and to seek help even as a senior scholar, and one of the most beautiful writers and thinkers that I know. He shows me that any work worth doing, any work that will reveal the importance of democracy and the power of education to help expand and broaden our notion of who belongs in our society, who gets to be counted as smart, needs to be done with honesty, with care, and with integrity. --Janelle Scott, Robert C. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Distinguished Chair in Educational Disparities, Professor, Graduate School of Education & Goldman School of Public Policy & African American Studies, University of California at Berkeley
Professor William Smith:
Before meeting Dr. Smith, I did not really know the impact of mentorship, but now I do. …He provided me the tools and direction along the way (informal and formal) to make my academic career flourish. He opened up doors for me professionally and helped me better understand what a career in research means. To this day, we regularly meet and collaborate on peer-reviewed research…. Dr. Smith impressed the importance of a culture of positive mentorship in research that extends beyond academia. Based on the mentorship I received from Dr. Smith, I feel I have become a better mentor for colleagues and graduate students that consider me a mentor. --Jeremy D. Franklin, Ph.D., Lecturer, University of Utah
Professor Cally Waite:
Dr. Waite impacts graduate students at pivotal times in their professional training. I first directly benefitted from her mentorship in 2008 when I encountered challenges writing my dissertation proposal. That year I attended the SSRC-MMGIP Proposal Writing and Dissertation Development Seminar. Over the course of several days, through opportunities to workshop my project and engage in intensive writing, my assigned faculty mentor offered the guidance and support that I needed to complete my proposal—support that was not available at my home institution. Dr. Waite was the powerful force leading the seminar. She supervised the faculty mentors and orchestrated every aspect of the program to meet our needs as graduate student participants. Most importantly, she inspired us to persevere. Through one-on-one conversations and larger group motivational talks, she emphasized that as aspiring scholars of color our research, writing, and perspectives had the potential to transform higher education. I feel fortunate to be among the hundreds of scholars energized by Dr. Waite’s encouragement and timely support in these seminars. --Elizabeth S. Todd-Breland, PhD, Associate Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago