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Nikki Newman: Finding The Right Mentor


Wow. What a week it’s been on Good Enough Mother.

There have been so many healthy debates, exchanged ideas and even some strong words along the way! I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about…

It only goes to prove once again what a great place GEM has become to share, be heard, learn and grow. Which ties in with my theme for this week – the idea of mentors in our lives and the people who teach and counsel us occupationally or personally at different points in our lives.

I know for me, as well as close family and friends who all act as mentors in one way or another, I’ve found being a part of GEM has been incredibly inspiring. Richard, Rene’s producer, first approached me to write a piece for the site last summer.  The idea excited and terrified me all at once but I took on the challenge and haven’t looked back.  That’s not to say that I’ve found it easy, but it’s becoming easier; now it’s a part of my week-to-week life and I wouldn’t want it any other way!  Richard is a long-time friend who has been something of a creative mentor for me over the years too, introducing me to great books, encouraging me with words of wisdom, warmth and humour, and now Rene does the same.  I feel very lucky.

But mentors aren’t always that great. When I trained to be a high school teacher, there were mentors a-plenty. Each placement brought with it a new one, each with their own style.

My first placement was overseen by a Head of Department whose style was of the ‘leave ‘em to their own devices’ variety – mainly while she drank coffee and planned her social life.  She was very proud of her sporty convertible, knee length high-heeled boots and manicure, and seemed to be out of the door even before the school bell went at the end of the day.  She was forgettable, in that I literally can’t even recall her name, let alone her face, just the car, the boots, the lifeless departmental office.  Though she did teach me one thing – this was not the kind of teacher I wanted to be.

However, on my final, long-term placement I was fortunate. I arrived just before the lunch bell on the day of my preliminary visit to my new school and while my new mentor, Janet, and I hastily introduced ourselves, she proposed we head out to the bar across the road for lunch and a chat. First surprise of the day: no stuffy staffroom for us! Excellent.

She scooped up the folders of work schemes and we made for the gate. On the way she told me that this particular week had been quite challenging.  With the support of the Principal she’d made the decision to come out to both staff and students at the school: the second surprise of the day.  A rumor had started and she didn’t want to deny anything.  She was gay.  The kids had a right to know the plain truth.  She had a right to be open about it. She was so matter-of-fact, though a tremor of trepidation in her voice revealed she knew this was a big deal.  Wow.  That sealed it.  She was going to make a very excellent mentor.  How brave I thought, what an incredible thing, made all the more significant as this was one of the most rural and close-knit communities I had ever visited – a small mining town perched on the cliffs in the far south-west of England, hundreds of miles from anywhere you might deem as cosmopolitan. I admired her enormously.

Over the months I was at that school, I saw that Janet was an unbelievable teacher, clearly respected and loved by the pupils and colleagues alike. She was the best mentor I could have asked for on this final leg of my course.

Every teacher’s Holy Grail is to get and keep the students quiet so some actual teaching can take place. Sounds easy right?  Wrong.  Oh so wrong. In our after-school de-briefs in the early days, Janet had a succinct way of putting this. After going through each part of the day’s lessons, she’d say something like ‘Honestly, it was great, but Nikki…’ now she started to beat out the rhythm of her words with her hand, ‘…you’ve just got to get the kids to shut the f*** up.’  It took me aback at first and then I laughed and nodded; despite the harshness of the words, I knew there was nothing hard or cold about it.  This was her style: passionate, witty, real.  It soon became my silent mantra that kept me going through some mightily challenging situations in class.  And yes. Behind closed doors, teachers curse.

It was because of her that I had the confidence to take my 8th grade students to an open-air production of Romeo and Juliet.  It would have been so easy to look at the behaviour of the class and shudder at the thought of releasing them from the walls of the classroom into a public space but I just had this desire to do exactly that; these kids deserved nothing less.  It was one of the best experiences of my teaching career.  All of us huddled in our waterproofs (it peed down), handing round bags of candy. The kids got the play. I got a cold.  We all had a blast.  I passed the course with flying colours, had secured a job, and I knew the kind of teacher I was going to be.  Thanks in no small part to Janet.

Fast forward to today – and my new life in the Middle East. Here I am now, working with paint and canvas, setting up a business, often feeling like I am in a vacuum – and I can’t help feeling like I need a seasoned, possibly wizened, definitely spirited artist-mentor to appear in my life right about now.  I want to be able to turn up at their doorstep, art underarm, sit in their studio amongst canvases, tubes of paint and empty wine bottles and glean truths and wisdom on all things painterly. That’s not so much to ask is it? Or am I being greedy?  Maybe I just need to harness the stuff I’ve learned before and, channelling some Janet here, pull myself up by my British boot straps and get the f*** on with it.

The many requests I’ve had lately to run art lessons are either going to get me side-tracked (remember the Side Track Trap) or, in taking on the role of teacher once again, I’ll find that I can learn a lot about myself by just having the confidence to trust in my own ability and encourage that of others.  But still, my cliché of an artist-mentor would still be pretty handy to have around. I think I still need to figure this one out… but when I do, I’ll be sure to let you know!

But what about you? Have you had someone in your life who’s served as a mentor? Or are you a mentor yourself? What do you look for in that special person? And can mentors be found or do they just appear at the ‘right time’? I’d love to hear your stories….

Nikki Newman, 36, from England, currently lives in Qatar, where she moved this year due to her husband’s work. A former teacher and proud mother of 7-year-old Oliver, she’s currently focusing on settling her family into their new lives, while also pursuing her passion for painting. To see Nikki’s work please go to: www.nikkinewmanart.com

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