Homer may have given it a name in the person of Mentor, the wise elder instructed by Odysseus to care for the boy Telemachus in his father’s absence, but the idea of harnessing experience, wisdom
Homer may have given it a name in the person of Mentor, the wise elder instructed by Odysseus to care for the boy Telemachus in his father’s absence, but the idea of harnessing experience, wisdom and trustworthy advice for meeting new challenges seems hard-wired. in the human mind.
Many educators can thank someone who gave them the mentorship they needed to find the skills and confidence early in their careers. Until fairly recently, it is likely that most of these relationships were informal – serendipitous products of proximity or chance for new teachers working alongside experienced and professionally generous colleagues. Others were framed in hierarchical terms: internship “supervisors” or simply professors or assistant directors whose job it was to ensure competence – whether by direction or coercion – or to say goodbye to the object. their instruction or supervision.
In recent decades, teacher mentoring has become more common, although not all programs receive the focus and resources needed to make mentoring universally meaningful and effective. But many new teachers are offered at least some school-based mentoring, and by most evidence, it helps them adapt to new roles in new situations.
But formal mentorship for school leaders in all positions is rarer. And it’s playing out as schools increasingly become the object of attention, wanted and unwanted, from many quarters, from politicians to teachers about to join the ‘Great Resignation’ to parents and guardians. made even more anxious and demanding by the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic. Office phones ring non-stop with calls that are less and less predictable in content. And we read that many headteachers are ready to hang up, with principals – occupying what is facetiously but too often aptly called the “complaints window” – the most affected and vulnerable.
Synthesizing more than two decades of research, a recent review commissioned by the Wallace Foundation shows that skilled leadership in schools translates into better experiences for teachers and students and better learning outcomes. (The Wallace Foundation helps support education week coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and after school.) But right now, many principals and leaders, alone but for leadership teams whose members have their own problems and are subject to the whims of school boards often under unimaginable outside pressures, are scared. This is hardly conducive to the wise, thoughtful, responsive and effective leadership that teachers, students and school communities look to their principals for.
Over the past two years, we have had the privilege of bringing together our own thoughts, research and personal experiences on this subject in a book, Leadership Through Mentoring: The Key to Improving Principals’ Confidence and Skills. Drawing on the experience of state-facilitated principal mentoring programs in Massachusetts and Vermont, the book lays out the case for such programs and offers point-by-point suggestions on how mentors can be recruited, trained and then supported. to help new principals. Trained mentors can and do help new principals find their own styles and ways to engage early and well with their schools and communities to build the confidence that characterizes good leadership. The programs we focus on, echoing Homer’s pattern through the millennia, build on the wisdom of retired directors.
Effective mentoring involves guiding the mentee to develop their own skills and abilities as themselves.
But wait, you think: retired directors haven’t seen the challenges facing leaders in 2022. Correct, but that’s not quite the point.
Effective mentoring involves guiding the mentee to develop their own skills and abilities as themselves. Mentoring is a highly reflective process aimed at leadership development and not based on pulling the strings of the mentee as a puppet or clone of the mentor. Great mentorship is about exploring multiple perspectives and considering multiple possibilities for action; it’s not just about offering advice, managing spins, or coming up with battle plans.
It goes like this: the mentee faces a challenge, something amazing in 2022. The mentor, who may have retired a long time ago in 2018, never had to face anything similar thing. But, recruited and trained to reflect on their own experience, the mentor has ideas on how to help the mentee break down the new challenge into manageable elements for analysis – competing interests, real sources and causes, possibilities and the consequences of things going awry. The next phase is to interactively, always reflectively, develop a response and action plan that matches the leadership style and professional goals of the new principal, as well as the strategic needs of the school and community. .
Will this plan be perfect, with guaranteed success? Of course not, but he will benefit from the wisdom and perspective of someone who has held the position and who can help the mentee understand the interests and perspectives at stake. Above all, the mentor’s job is to believe in his mentee. We like to think of it this way: once upon a time, the mentor was a teacher who believed in their students, so they bring that nurturing spirit to their mentoring. And who doesn’t perform better when you know that someone wise believes in you?
The programs we present in our book are not unique – other states and districts have established their own mentorship programs for leaders, and we can assume that informal personal arrangements are as old as the schools themselves. . Teachers and students have always benefited.
From school principals to other senior administrators and university leaders, the case for practices that can help leaders succeed has never been stronger than it is right now. As we emerge, painfully but hopefully, from the pandemic into a world where war, economic insecurity and climate change affect every community in ways large, small and still unknown, we desperately need to tap into the wisdom of experience, wherever we can find it. School leaders need structures to support them.
Mentorship programs are a great place to start.