Written by Peter Gow and Phyllis Gimbel, authors of Leadership through Mentoring: The Key to Improving the Confidence and Skill of Principals -- A year ago we published a book detailing and promoting public school principal mentorship programs as ways of bolstering the capacities and longevity-in-office of school leaders in the communities and states where such programs have been established. Phyllis, now a professor of educational leadership after a career that spanned many roles—including a principalship—in both independent and public schools, helped establish and has done extensive research on the state-mandated principal mentorship programs in Vermont and Massachusetts. Peter has filled a variety of roles and done his own digging on mentorship for writings on teacher recruiting, hiring, and development. As we read of resignations and rapid turnover at all levels in independent schools, we believe that broad-based mentorship programming is a way forward.
As former independent school academic leaders—and as parents of independent school educators—we believe that mentorship programs designed along proven lines and supported by appropriate national or regional organizations would be effective methods for supporting academic leaders at all levels—from department chairs to the most senior positions—in schools in all sectors. Even as the pandemic and political upheavals have spawned unprecedented challenges to educators in every role and highlighted the ways in which schools and their leaders must adapt and evolve to meet these challenges, the experience and situationally acquired wisdom even of leaders from the Before Time can help current incumbents break down new and novel circumstances and even crises to devise responses built from understanding multiple perspectives and possible outcomes.
Let us ponder human history: Wisdom and experience, applied strategically and creatively, have won more battles than innovative wonder weapons. And we are fond of reminding ourselves, as Covid persists and our overdue confrontation with systemic racism and other social and political evils continues, that “there is no magic bullet.” (And let’s acknowledge that this metaphor becomes more malapropos with every sickening headline and may need to be laid down permanently.)
Those who have been academic leaders in any roles have weathered many storms, large and small, and whether they have retired or just moved on to new positions and jobs, they have acquired perspectives that, when identified, reflected upon, and analyzed, can be applied in the face of other—and others’—storms. Some intentional training and attention to a few basic and research-validated principles can equip mentors with the skills and confidence to build mentee relationships built on emotional connection, partnerships of purpose, and responsive leadership (to adapt the ECPR—emotionally connect, partner, and respond—acronym that is gaining currency).
This can be accomplished on a school-by-school basis, though the pool of available mentees and of multiple experiences and perspectives may be limited within a single institution. Even so, this fall will find many individuals in new positions of academic leadership, and we urge incumbents and “newbies” alike to consider what resources might be available to act in mentorship roles for whatever the positions might be.
Where to look for mentors in this moment? Well, if you are reading this, you already understand the power of professional networks, and you probably have one of your own. Who are your friends and connections in other schools, or perhaps your own, who have roles similar to that needing mentorship at your own place? Who has retired or moved along from your own school who might be willing and able to serve? While in time we would like to believe that regional and national associations might be the best sources of mentor training and programming at a meaningful scale, right now that isn’t so much on the table.
An aside: Both of us, alas, have had experience trying to promote local interscholastic mentor programs among independent schools; it seems that in the Before Time, every school was certain it was doing perfectly all that it needed to do to support new teachers and administrators, or there was always a workshop to which you send someone for a couple of days. We hope that the lack of vision behind the denial we encountered is a thing of the past.
The details of how to recruit and train mentors and how to set up optimal circumstances for mentor–mentee relationships are spelled out in our book. Each element could be easily adapted down the road to create programs at scale to support those in leadership positions such as academic deans, department chairs, and leaders of other academic-adjacent and -impacted functions—in areas like DEIB, technology, community and civic engagement, for starters. This effort would support and give confidence to all new leaders as they adjust to the evolving worlds in which they will be working and living.
We encourage readers to consider how to support their own academic leader peers—and themselves!—through ad hoc mentorship arrangements in the coming year. And we urge schools and their leaders to embrace the idea that collaboration and the sharing of resources and ideas—especially the hard-won resource of human experience and wisdom—will add to the vitality and the viability of all schools.
Let us add, happily, that we see such collaborative enterprises as the Association of Academic Leaders as prime ground in time for the establishment of meaningful leader mentorship programs among its member schools, and we will applaud and actively support such an initiative.
As I move through these conversations, I always note trends. There were clear trends this year, and I heard them reflected by teacher after teacher. The most prominent trend was that teachers felt that this year was a hard year – not a bad year, but a hard one nonetheless, and that the hard work was worth it.
As we dug into this realization, they overwhelmingly followed up sharing that what has been hard has also been what they most value. There is a common recognition by teachers from all departments that they needed to ensure that they were meeting our students where they are. In the 2020-2021 school year, that was more obvious. They were in masks, distanced; they were in quarantine and joining classes on the Hub; they were navigating the uncertainty of a global pandemic. This year, however, students were in person in the classroom, and, as we are in Texas, they have been mostly unmasked, if they chose to be, for the year. Things looked surprisingly “normal”!
We all quickly learned that although they looked like our typical students in past years, they were not exactly matching our previously expected levels of readiness to which our teachers have calibrated and perfected their lessons. Of course they were not! They are in a decidedly different place than our students in pre-pandemic years. Students were in a third interrupted year of learning. We intentionally reduced instructional time in the 2020-2021 year, and there are, naturally, gaps to fill. Their opportunities for socialization with peers and adults were infrequent and often a little strange. We had the privilege of having Lisa Damour speak with our teachers in January 2022 as we were ramping up for our second semester. In her brilliant way, she offered a clear explanation of why we were seeing all that we were with our students. She presented a clear metaphor for where they are in their lives. They spent many years progressively building up their strengths as learners – their academic muscles. Then, suddenly, their access to the gym was cut off. The access resumed, in a limited fashion, but just as anyone who was on a fitness plan prior to Covid which relied on actually going to the gym, they lost some muscle. It would be unrealistic for us to expect that a sophomore in the fall of 2021 was going to have the same academic stamina and skills as a sophomore would have had in the fall of 2019. This resonated with our faculty, and I heard a room full of educators saying “yes! I get that!”
Even before they heard this helpful metaphor, our teachers had recognized that they had to recalibrate. They had been rethinking their course goals and curriculum content and order. They had identified new pathways for students to use on their way to mastery. In many cases, they tossed their favorite lesson plans and started fresh. Their collective empathy and affection for our students showed up in all of this consistent tweaking and rethinking. At times they could see that the students were struggling, and they did the loving thing by pressing pause on their daily plans and giving the girls room to breathe and gather themselves. I am profoundly grateful for the ways our teachers met this moment for our students.
And then, the year ended. We resumed final exams, and it was not an overwhelmingly positive experience, even with significant preparation and thoughtfully designed assessments. We had a small Covid outbreak among faculty in the final week of school, and colleagues needed to step in and help as a sub when none of our “on call” subs were available. Our hearts collectively shattered hearing news of the murdered children in Uvalde. We had thought we were running toward a glorious finish after a grueling race, but instead it felt like we all just dragged ourselves through the final days. It was not our best ending.
I am now in summer mode, taking long walks around campus, watching the sweet middle school campers who join us for workshops designed for sheer fun, finding a colleague in the hall and having a genial chat, neither of us needing to bolt off to the next meeting. I keep seeing the tired faces of our faculty in my mind as they were at our closing luncheon. Their eyes, their questions, their love for our students are driving me to uncover a way to welcome them in August with transparency and hope. I will use this summer to seek a way forward for next year. I am imagining that the spring of 2023 end-of-year conversations reflect recognition that kids are still recovering from the many effects of the pandemic and that faculty felt ready for it. I am visualizing faculty letting me know they felt supported and appreciated. Now – it is up to me and the other leaders here to make that happen, and that will be hard but worthy work.
Mindfulness. Whatever it may be; there are skeptics. Giving students tools for expanding metacognition and access to self is a wonderful aim, but it’s no miracle cure for anxiety and anguish. It won’t stop hurtful social media, bullets, or viruses. Meaningful mindfulness doesn’t happen in the lonely recesses of the soul but must be regular practice and above all regular discourse in a community. Students must talk about what’s on their minds, which means expanding and actually listening to and acting on student voice—not just about how kids feel about the pandemic or the geometry test but about how they are processing the world. And how they would like to see the world change.
Empathy. Working to project one’s generous feelings into the contexts of other people and their situations is admirable in all ways, and walking miles in someone else’s footwear is critical mental and social-emotional exercise for all humans. But the practice of and disposition toward empathy must be taught, part of this by example: by demonstrating active empathy toward the differential experiences of every child and every colleague; not just nodding but asking questions and exploring experiences and perspectives. By keeping this exploration at the top of every conversation.
And Respect. Historically schools have freighted “respect” with connotations of compliance, in which respect equals doing the whatever as expected and treating with deference those in positions of authority. NO. This is not respect. It’s fear. The truism that “respect must be earned” is too often co-opted to mean, “If you have been invested with ‘authority’ by the system, you must exercise it in ways that make the underlings obey.” True respect, as we must mean and practice it in schools, means seeing everyone as who they are and understanding them how they wish to be understood: in their physical selves, in their experiences, and in their feelings and perspectives on who they are and what their lives have been like. And what they want their lives to be.
Thirty years ago another old colleague (I’ve had a bunch of ‘em in a long career) offered up the now-loaded term “P.C.” as being not about “politics” but about Politeness and Courtesy—not Emily Post etiquette, but about making the active effort to treat and speak with and about other people and their experiences with humility and respect. (While we’re at it, let us stipulate that “humility” is not about self-abasement and shame but the simple recognition that one is part of but not playing a starring role in a huge and complex world—that other lives, human and otherwise, all matter as much as our own, regardless of whatever systemic privileges we may have been granted or denied.) Schools can enact respect as a meaningful value by training members in the arts of treating others as they wish to be treated and by looking for ways to affirm the value of the physical lives, the experiences, and the feelings and perspectives of every community member—and by calling out moments when these values are abrogated, denied, or imperiled.
Mindfulness. Empathy. Respect. M-E-R, a nice metaphor for helping students and everyone else better equip themselves emotionally, socially, and ethically to swim in the great sea of humanity in a world under so many threats.
But nice metaphors, however apt or just clever, are not enough. Schools and the individuals who tend and attend them must find themselves in worlds where these words—and words like diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice—are not just given lip service but actively and intentionally lived as educational and above all human values.
This is hard, but it is not in any way antithetical or an impediment to “learning”—the bread-and-butter academic and athletic, social-emotional, or artistic content that schools must provide. Skills, understandings, and habits of mind—plus some important factual knowledge—can be intentionally taught and reliably acquired in environments where mindfulness, empathy, and respect are the lived ethos of the learning community and its culture.
There is the matter of support, which in the mantra “Fewer promises, more support” is not about fortifying counseling and DEIB offices (never be a bad idea, to be sure) but about creating cultures of support—in which the acknowledgment of the physical, emotional, and social being of each individual is the starting point for all learning. This involves a high level of intentionality, but the intentionality is what schools claim to be all about. It’s the promise we make and a covenant we proclaim.
There are some who smirkingly harp on the slogan that “all lives matter,” and of course all lives do matter, but not in the way these people mean. Schools must do the work to understand what ALL the lives in their own care need and want, all the way up Maslow’s Hierarchy. Otherwise, they will never be communities in which all students (and all adults) find the physical, emotional, and social validation and security that will enable them to learn well—mindfully, empathetically, and respectfully—on their journeys through life.
Fewer promises, more support.
From June 16 to 17, a group of Academic Leaders gathered in Washington, DC for the Association for Academic Leaders’ first Academic Leaders Forum. Attendees were excited to gather in person; for some, it was the first group professional learning event they’d attended in person since 2019. Attendees were inspired by keynote speakers Holly Hinderlie, who spoke about the importance of balancing wellness and leadership, and Jen Cort, who provided tools on how to communicate effectively and strengthen connections when doing DEI work. Coming together created a space for Academic Leaders to reflect on the past year, and recharge for the strategic work of the summer in preparation for the 22-23 school year. We couldn’t begin to cover all the insights and inspiration we felt at the Forum. These three takeaways, however, capture the energy, honesty, and joy that characterized our time together.
"As Academic Leaders, we're the people who operationalize the strategic plans and the vision from the mission. That is a weighty responsibility."
We know that Academic Leaders can feel like an “island of one,” because they’re often the only person in their exact position at their school. Sometimes, a participant reflected, it can feel like there’s no common language on campus, because everyone does such different work. At the Forum, however, educators were speaking the same language and making authentic connections about their goals, successes, and challenges.
Academic Leaders have to toggle back and forth between opportunities and concerns, and between the urgent and the important. Keynote speaker Jen Cort talked about responding to issues by being “proactive, reactive, and reflective.” She emphasized the “power of the pause” in high-tension situations – the idea that sending out a holding statement, or taking a moment to regroup and clarify your thoughts can mean clearer communication, better decision-making, and more authentic alignment to mission.
The “power of the pause” exemplifies what this forum was designed to do: to allow attendees to take a moment to breathe and step away from their day-to-day responsibilities, and seize the opportunity to think strategically about what their roles are and could be.
“If you’re working nonstop and exhausted, you can’t be visionary.”
The first day of the Forum guided Academic Leaders to think about how to balance personal wellness and community wellbeing. All too often in the past three years, the day-to-day work of Academic Leaders has been consumed by innumerable urgent challenges, creating a constant tension that can quickly deplete educators.
The work that matters most in Academic Leadership is future-oriented thinking and strategic implementation, but that’s exactly the kind of work that requires time to reflect and breathe. Keynote speaker Holly Hinderlie helped attendees reflect on their own wellness and the wellness of their school communities, and grappled with the balance between personal wellness and community wellbeing.
“This is exactly what I needed.”
Throughout the Forum, Sarah Hanawald, Senior Director of the Association, led a series of unconference and group activities designed to stimulate conversations about values and academic leadership. Attendees connected with colleagues in similar roles, working in schools experiencing similar challenges and growing in similar ways.
Academic Leaders told us that the two days we spent together were both “professionally and personally invigorating” and “a great resource.” This summer, the Association for Academic Leaders is continuing to expand resources and programming. We invite you to join us in building a community dedicated to growth, reflection, and connection.
My friend sees it another way, particularly when considering the experiences of BIPOC students and faculty and others whose identities, orientations, or socioeconomic status diverge from traditional independent school bourgeois, white “norms”: “Schools can’t be aspirational when they’re talking about kids and their identities and lives. Schools act like they have control over their students’ words and actions, and they don’t.”
Wait. Schools can’t be aspirational? And then we dug in a little deeper, and I understood: Independent schools should not believe that the loftiest statements and sentiments enshrined on their websites and sometimes on their walls are magical incantations. Waving a wand and shouting, Aequitate! or Iustitia! does not make the concepts real in the lives of students, and implying that the good intentions of an institution and the well-meaning and often trained individuals who work there will smooth the experience of all students, including their interactions with one another, is a delusion and, when ballyhooed as an ironclad truth, a lie.
A school can maintain a reasonable level of control over what happens in its programs: in classrooms, on stages, in studios, and on playing fields. Some independent schools extend this to situations that may seem quaint (at dining tables) or are recognized as permeable in their own right (in dormitories). But there is a vast underlayer of social and cultural interplay that adults may fleetingly glimpse but never fully see. Even the most observant and astute adult caregiver makes inaccurate assumptions and otherwise misses much of what goes on in Kid World.
And Kid World, as we know all too well, is comprised entirely of keen observers of Adult World. “The students are watching,” as Ted and Nancy Sizer reminded us. For a bit of perspective, let’s imagine what students have seen lately and how this has affected them. The current mental health crisis among students is glibly attributed to the pandemic, but what does that mean, exactly?
For starters, a whole lot of people have been sickened by Covid-19, and a million of them in the United States alone have died: parents, siblings, grandparents, children, friends, and strangers. Schools had to move quickly and often inelegantly to online instruction, and some of this was not all that great. All of this is traumatic in itself, but consider the larger backdrop against which the medical tragedy and educational jury-rigging has been playing out: the rise of a righteous movement for racial reckoning and in terrifying contrast the re-surfacing of overt and violent White Supremacist actors who by all appearances include high-profile leaders in the American government.
Everywhere radical conservatives are raging against the very values that schools proclaim, and everywhere there are signs that the social contract that was in force not so long ago is unraveling or being downright abrogated: highway and drug-related deaths, for example, are on the rise, and suicides and gun violence are endemic. Climate change is palpable. Students read that state legislatures in some states are trying to shut down conversations in schools and colleges about equity and diversity entirely, and Roe v. Wade, so emblematic of women’s “liberation” not so long ago, is on the judicial chopping block. Sinclair Lewis’s grim 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here hasn’t earned a spot on many academic reading lists, but it is beginning to look as though it can happen here, in the United States of America. The economic crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which has added the prospect of nuclear war to the global conversation) is hitting everyone, everywhere.
Who is not having a mental health crisis, large or small, in this early summer of 2022? If one believes in and tries to live the values and missions of institutions, one can only be tearing one’s hair, an unhealthy practice in itself. Schools may talk about mindfulness, empathy, and respect, but how can they really support students to find purpose, joy, and above all feelings of comfort and belonging as participants in communities damaged and even shattered by the ills of our time?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)