Homer may have given it a name in the person of Mentor, the wise elder assigned by Odysseus to look after the boy Telemachus in his father’s absence, but the idea of tapping experience, wisdom, and trustworthy guidance to meet new challenges seems hard-wired into the human spirit.
Many educators can thank someone who offered them the mentorship they needed to find early-career competence and confidence. Until fairly recently, it is likely that most of these relationships were informal—fortuitous products of proximity or serendipity for newly minted classroom teachers working alongside experienced and professionally generous colleagues. Others were couched in hierarchical terms: practicum “supervisors” or simply professors or assistant principals whose job was to ensure competence—whether through guidance or compulsion—or bid the object of their instruction or supervision a vocational farewell.
In the past several decades, teacher mentorship has become more common, although not all programs receive the emphasis and resources necessary to make mentorship universally meaningful and effective. But many new teachers are offered at least some school-based mentoring, and by most evidence, it helps their adjustment to new roles in new situations.
But formal mentoring for school leaders in any and all positions is a rarer thing. And this plays out as schools are becoming more and more the objects of attention, wanted and unwanted, from many quarters, from politicians to teachers on the verge of joining the “Great Resignation” to parents and guardians made even more anxious and demanding by the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic. Administrative phones are ringing off the hook with calls of ever-less-predictable content. And we read that many school leaders are ready to hang it up, with principals—occupying what is facetiously but too often accurately called the “complaint window”—the most affected and most vulnerable.
Synthesizing more than two decades of research, a recent review commissioned by the Wallace Foundation shows that skilled leadership in schools plays out in better teacher and student experiences and better learning outcomes. (The Wallace Foundation helps support Education Week’s coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool.) But in this moment, many principals and heads, alone but for leadership teams whose members have their own problems and subject to the whims of school boards often under unimaginable external pressures, are running scared. This is hardly conducive to the exercise of the wise, reflective, responsive, and effective leadership for which teachers, students, and school communities look to their principals.
Over the last couple of years, we were privileged to put together our own thoughts, research, and personal experiences on this in a book, Leadership through Mentoring: The Key to Improving the Confidence and Skill of Principals. Drawing on the experience of successful, state-facilitated principal-mentorship programs in Massachusetts and Vermont, we lay out in the book the case for such programs and offer point-by-point suggestions on how mentors can be recruited, trained, and then supported to help new school principals. Trained mentors can and do help new principals find their own styles and pathways to engaging early and well with their schools and communities to build the trust and confidence that are the hallmarks of great principalship. The programs on which we focus, echoing Homer’s model down the millennia, draw on retired principals for their wisdom.
Effective mentorship is about guiding the mentee to develop their own skills and capacities as themselves.
But wait, you are thinking: Retired principals haven’t seen the likes of the challenges facing leaders in 2022. Correct, but that’s not quite the point.
Effective mentorship is about guiding the mentee to develop their own skills and capacities as themselves. Mentorship 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 mentoring involves exploring multiple perspectives and considering multiple possibilities for action; it is not just offering advice, managing spin, or developing battle plans.
It goes like this: The mentee faces a challenge, something oh-so-dauntingly 2022. The mentor, who may have retired long ago in 2018, never had to deal with anything quite like it. But, recruited and trained to reflect on their own experience, the mentor has ideas about how to help the mentee break down the novel challenge into manageable pieces for analysis—the competing interests, the real sources and causes, the possibilities for and consequences of things going awry. The next phase involves interactively—still reflecting all the time—building out a response and action plan that fits the new principal’s own leadership style and professional goals as well as the strategic needs of the school and community.
Will this plan be perfect, with guaranteed success? Of course not, but it will benefit from the wisdom and perspective of someone who has been in the role and who can help the mentee understand the interests and perspectives in play. Above all, the mentor’s job is to believe in their mentee. We like to see it this way: Once upon a time, the mentor was a teacher who believed in their students, so they bring that encouraging mindset to their mentoring. And who does not perform better when we know that someone wise believes in us?
The programs we feature in our book are not unique—other states and districts have been building their own leader-mentoring programs, and we can surmise that informal, personal arrangements are as old as schools themselves. Teachers and students have benefited from these all along.
Whether it’s about principals or other senior administrators and academic leaders, the case for practices that can help leaders succeed has never been stronger than at this moment. As we emerge, painfully but hopefully, from the pandemic into a world where war, economic insecurity, and climate change are touching every community in ways large, small, and as yet unknown, we desperately need to draw on the wisdom of experience, wherever we can find it. School leaders need structures to support them.
Mentoring programs are a great place to start.