By Susan Stone Kessler, Ed.D., April M. Snodgrass, M.Ed., and Andrew T. Davis, Ed.D., authors of the forthcoming The Principal’s Survival Guide
Are you a new principal? A new teacher? Or do you work with people who are new to the education field? Then you have probably already realized the importance of a mentor. January is National Mentoring Month, which makes it a perfect time to consider why mentors are so important—and what to look for in one.
For New Principals
If you are a new principal, you’ll want to find a mentor separate from the leader who supervises you. Why? An ideal mentor—an experienced principal who works at the school down the road or across the world—has developed time-saving ideas for how to do your job. The experienced principal has already perfected questions for interviewing teachers, developed the best way to involve school personnel in the budget process, and navigated the landmines of dealing with a principal’s many bosses. He or she is still actively involved in the process of being a principal and understands what you’re going through in a way no one else can. You can challenge your mentor’s rationale or argue philosophy without anyone thinking you’re being insubordinate. These discussions will help you develop your own ideas about how and why you lead your school the way you do. Plus, when you don’t take the advice of your mentor because you disagree, it’s more like what happens when a teen doesn’t take a parent’s advice. The mentor may shake his or her head, but he or she still loves and supports you as you make your own mistakes. When you don’t do what the boss says, love is not the feeling you’re likely to get in return.
How do you pick a mentor? Most people look for similar school demographics in terms of grade levels served, size of school, or school makeup regardless of location, while others prefer someone in their geographic area no matter what kind of school they run. The most important characteristic of a mentor is that you believe he or she is successful in leading a school. No mentor will be perfect—that’s impossible. But most principals will be glad to take you under their wing because they are, after all, teachers who are motivated to help others. The benefit of picking someone in your district is that this person will know and work with all the same people you do. The benefit of picking someone 1,000 miles away is that you don’t have to tiptoe around your mentor’s friends or close associates. Like most things in life, there are many great choices, and this is about what works best for you.
For New Teachers
Just like new principals, new teachers need mentors they can trust who do not supervise them. We highly recommend that principals set up mentor programs in their schools to build in this level of support as a part of new teacher induction. Whether you are a teacher choosing a mentor for yourself or you’re helping teachers find mentors, here are a few guidelines to consider:
- Choose highly effective teachers who are comfortable sharing their practices with others. Observe teachers in their classrooms and interacting with their students. Do their classrooms look the way you would want yours to look? Are students engaged and learning? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then observe teachers in planning or team meetings. Are they willing to help out when needed? Do they communicate with adults as well as they do with students? If the answer is still yes, then they might make great mentors.
- Look for connections between mentors and mentees. Mentor relationships tend to be more successful when connections are present. These connections might be based on personality types, interests outside of school, subject or grade levels taught, or life experiences. The specific connection is not that important. What’s important is that it’s there.
- Plan regular communication. It is very easy to get busy in the business of school and not take the time needed to get the support a mentor can provide. Whether you’re meeting for coffee, talking on the phone, emailing regularly, or making copies together during your planning period, a mentor relationship needs communication to be successful, and regular check-ins make mentees feel more comfortable about coming to their mentor with a serious issue.
Mentorship alone cannot guarantee the success of a new principal or teacher, but it can go a long way toward helping a newbie navigate the world of education and avoid those pitfalls a veteran can see so clearly.
Have you ever had an extraordinary mentor? Tell us about it!
Dr. Susan Stone Kessler is an award-winning educator who has spent the past 21 years working in schools with Middle Tennessee teenagers. She has been a teacher, assistant principal, and high school principal in two Tennessee school districts. April M. Snodgrass, M.Ed., is an assistant principal in Nashville. Dr. Andrew T. Davis is a principal at an elementary school in Nashville. Their book The Principal’s Survival Guide: Where Do I Start? How Do I Succeed? When Do I Sleep? will be available in March 2015.
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