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.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)