“To Be A Mentor You Must Care”: Maya Angelou, The Legacy of a Teacher

“To Be A Mentor You Must Care”: Maya Angelou, The Legacy of a Teacher

Maya Angelou was born on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in a number of places in the states, but especially in Stamps, Arkansas. Her long life encompassed many professions: She has been described as a dancer, singer, performer, organizer, fund-raiser, poet, actress, activist, philanthropist, and for the last 30+ years of her life, was the Reynolds Professor of America Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Winner of prizes and honors from the Pulitzer to Presidential Medal of the Arts (2000) and the Lincoln Medal (2008), she has been an extraordinary influence on her times, and an extraordinary voice for the hopes of so many of us.  When she died on May 28th, 2014, newspapers all over the world ran obituaries not just heralding her passing but also celebrating a life that the Los Angeles Times called “prodigiously inventive.

Reading her obituary is like reading several life stories at once; she was so many things, she did so many things, and yet there was a thread, a philosophy that ran through it all. Prodigiously inventive was part of it; drawing on a well of character as deep and as good as one could possibly hope for was another part.

But the life that speaks to all of us in the wider WizIQ family was her life as a teacher. On her website MayaAngelou.com, there is an article about her that appeared originally in USA Today. Written by Bob Minzesheimer, there is a point in the piece at which he quotes her as saying “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that”.

Angelou came to her Professorship in the 1980s and was still teaching one course a semester at the end of her life, somewhat frail, but still eager to fill up her students with inspiration. Minzesheimer quoted her: “I see all those little faces and big eyes. Black and white. They look like sparrows in the nest. They look up, with their mouths wide open, and I try to drop in everything I know.

That’s a wonderful way to put that feeling when you face a classroom of students—whether face to face or online, or a new tutoring student—and you see that wonderful road of collaboration spreading out in front of you.

Coming to Care

When I was growing up people used to say there were “born” teachers and “taught” teachers. Born teachers were like “naturals” at baseball or acting or music: They seemed to have an innate understanding of the task at hand. Without blinking, they could just do it whether “it” was teaching a child to read, or hitting a home run, or standing up in a school play and astonishing the audience, or listening to a song on the radio and then sitting down at the piano and reproducing it. A born teacher just felt the classroom, however big or small it was, whether it was well equipped or just had a roof that kept the rain out of enough space for a few students to sit. A born teacher could look around a classroom and just size up what was needed. And then there are the rest of us: “taught” teachers, people who study hard, watch and learn, give it a try, and then another try, and another, doing our best to live up to our vision of who we could be and what we could do.

In a sense though, a taught teacher who is successful must be a “born” learner. Maya Angelou was certainly one of those. She had a lot of strong women in her life, but one woman took the time to introduce a young girl to the joy of well-made prose and poetry (LA Times Obituary). Her name was Bertha Flowers. Inviting Angelou to tea and cookies, she would read from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and the works of other authors, telling Angelou “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning”(Source: Los Angeles Times). Within weeks Angelou was memorizing and reciting poetry and beginning to feel the power of words for herself.

I would venture to guess that Bertha Flowers was a “born” teacher, at least for Angelou, and that Angelou was a born learner if there ever was one.

And Bertha Flowers was a born mentor too. She made a space in her own life to care about what Angelou knew, and to give the young girl she was then a look at the way the writers and poets among us mark our comings and goings and make our feelings plain. So many of the teachers I’ve known, here on WizIQ, and in the wider world, have had that urge, to face those “little faces and big eyes” and care what thoughts and understandings would lay the foundations for the lives those kids would live.

Maya Angelou Discusses Mentors from Dr. Maya Angelou on Vimeo.

Being a Rainbow

One of the things that Maya Angelou liked to say, and that I saw again in a wonderful video introducing one of her 31 books, A Letter to My Daughter, was “be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud” (Source: Vimeo ). Such a great piece of advice.

As a teacher, you are sometimes at a bit of a distance from the individuals who come to your class, or seek you out for tutoring. If you’re in a room full of students, virtual or face-to-face, there are a lot of hearts and heads there, a lot of circumstances, a lot of life stories, a lot of living repositories of experience and aspiration. To focus on each one and really know what their “cloud” might be, what their challenges are, what the circumstances of their lives might be: that kind of “knowing” can be so difficult to achieve.

One of the things I have always loved about Dr. Nellie Deutsch’s WizIQ classes (and all of us who have learned from her have a tendency to do this too) is that she always asks where you are when you’re watching her webinar, what you see out your window, whether it is day or night, hot or cold, winter or summer. Doing that breaks down some of the distance between you and your students, gives you some insight into where and how they live. But you cannot tell if beyond the door of their home office, or out of sight around the corner in their living room or lounge are debilitating problems. It could be anything from a spouse or child who resents your time in class, or the pressure of rushing to train up for a job because the cupboards are bare, or in the distance the noises of wind and rain on its way, or worse yet crime or war. You don’t know if the street sounds you hear from the open window come up from a neighborhood full of helpful, kind-hearted people or from mean streets, buildings covered with graffiti and boarded-up empty stores.

So there are a lot of reasons to assume that, whoever those bright eyes are in a face-to-face classroom, or those kind-hearted faces talking into the video camera, or those amazingly interesting and beautiful names scrolling up the chat box, everybody has a cloud and you can be the rainbow. Your attitude, your welcoming spirit, and the knowledge you want to guide them too, or help them find, or just drop on their plates can bring something wonderful into their day.

Celebrating Our Sameness

It’s really hard to choose from among the things that Maya Angelou has said across her long and well-lived life. She had so many profound understandings of what it means to be human, and of what it meant to be in her circumstances to be a member of her community, a citizen of my country. She had a clear understanding of our country and its history, excesses, injustices, inequalities, but also a profound understanding of what about us was universal, and how we are all on the planet, sharing so much. So many of us are teachers all over the world, whatever we teach, whatever the traditions are in our countries. So many of us are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, true friends and good neighbors. As she always said “We are more alike than we are unalike” (from The Passion for the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, retrieved from Vimeo).

There are so many people on our planet who do not see that sameness, and yet, I think WizIQ and its teaching platform prove everyday that at least here, in the virtual classroom, and in our other teaching venues, we have so many of the same goals. Whether we’re teaching English, or the sciences, or skills that will serve us in a whole variety of jobs, we’re teaching and learning together, encouraging and challenging each other.

There is another concept that she brought up often; I heard it again this morning in a video of an interview from the 1990s on the old Arsenio Hall Show, a late night chat show on US television that had a lot of heart. The host asked her why she thought that the American civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, was so charismatic and she said “If you know enough, you take everybody into the room with you  … you bring so many people with you, people who have loved you, people who have taught you, people who have supported you …” (retrieved from Retrieved from YouTube, Maya Angelou on Arsenio Hall, Part 1).

For her that is what charisma was; coming onto a stage or up to a podium, carrying with you the people who had helped you, the people you have helped, your whole sense not of self alone but of the community that nurtured and challenged you. She said there were so many people “on the stage” with Martin Luther King that she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. And there were so many with her, that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Remembering and honoring the people we have come into contact with, who have helped us as teachers, who have raised us, taught us: I think that’s something that good teachers do instinctively. We walk into the room, whether it is brick and mortar or virtual, with our teachers, our students, our inspirations, our cautionary tales, all in our heads and heart. If we are really good, we not only carry their wisdom, but the wisdom of our mentors and what we’ve learned from those who have influenced us fill up our classrooms too.  Out of that sense of who we have all come from, we discover how much common ground we all share.

A final word

Becoming reacquainted with Maya Angelou and her work over the days since her death has reminded me that the hardest thing to do is to “live your teaching” (Retrieved from Just Do Right) but that, by taking lessons from her life, and being reminded of her heart and her wisdom, we can understand that, as she said:

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

Those are words to teach by.

(Image: CC Flickr image; Do some good, Maya Angelou Tribute poster, available at Zazzle)


Dr. Nancy Zingrone has a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh and an MSEd in Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. She is passionate about online education, having learned a significant amount of what she knows about teaching online from the incomparable Dr. Nellie Deutsch and the wonderful folks at WizIQ. Her work background includes more than twenty years in personal and individual differences research, publishing, higher education administration, and adult education.

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