Speaking of the late Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey said, “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. Mentors are important, and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.”
There are very few relationships that are as powerful as the mentor-mentee relationship. We see them in history (Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.), in the Bible (the Queen of Sheba sought the wisdom of King Solomon), in literature (Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore), and in movies (Luke Skywalker and Yoda!) Each of these relationships was based on trust, respect, and a desire on the mentee’s part to learn from and be more like the mentor. In the mentee’s eyes, the mentor exemplified the person they hoped to be or be like someday.
What is a mentor? What is their purpose? To push you? Help you grow? Find answers that you know are there but you just need guidance to discover? A sounding board? A pusher?
The value and importance of a mentor cannot be overstated. Throughout our careers, we have actively sought mentors to make us better educators and better leaders. It’s not always been the same mentor. Sometimes you seek a mentor on where you are in your journey. When I (Todd) first started teaching, first became an assistant principal, first became a principal, I actively sought out a mentor who could help me, challenge me, encourage me, and support me. P.S. A big thank you to Shelley Moss (my master teacher when I did my student teaching), Dr. Mark Johnson (who modeled the way to be an AP before I became one), and Erin Kominsky (one of the greatest principals I have ever known) for willingly being mentors to me in key stages of my educational career. Their wisdom, insight, and advice was instrumental in making me the teacher, educator, and leader that I am today.
Sometimes mentors present themselves when you least suspect it. Such is the case with a current mentor, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, the Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District in Fall Creek, WI. He and I met last November at the Admin CUE Rockstar Camp in Northern California. Although I had followed him on social media, when you meet Joe, it is an entirely different experience. Joe understands the power of telling your school or district’s story before someone else does. He has taken a small district in Wisconsin and made it a model for the entire country.
More than anything, Joe walks the walk. He advocates for student choice and student voice. He believes in celebrating your community and your staff. He is a master of social media and branding. In short, Fall Creek is a place people WANT to be. For all his success, Joe does not take himself too seriously. He’s funny, genuine, innovative, and self-deprecating...in short, he is the type of leader and friend that I strive to be. Despite being in opposite parts of the country, we stay connected via Twitter, Voxer, and Facebook, and he is always available to ask a question or get some advice. We’ve managed to hang out in person three times this year, and each time is awesome! So many of the things I have implemented at my school site have come from Joe (who also freely admits that he borrows ideas from other innovative educators and leaders). I also greatly admire his dedication to his family and his friends...and you can see he works at creating a balance of being a dad, husband, superintendent, friend, and educational leader. I am blessed to know him, learn from him, and call him a dear friend.
I (Adam) have always had multiple mentors at the same time throughout my life. In the moment I probably didn’t realize it, but years later when you’re reflecting on a journey or time in your life those people really come to the surface.
During my one year at junior college there was a child development professor who I would say really saved my educational career. I was floundering, playing baseball for the college, working on my 1959 Chevy hot rod and really not sure what I was doing or where I wanted to go! A few engaging conversations and Susan really showed that she cared about me and my path in life. Fast forward almost twenty years and Susan is still a dear friend, and still a mentor on many levels! Susan kept me in college, she helped me transfer to a four-year university and when I was eighteen years old and without a plan - she also really believed in me!
The two biggest mentors in my professional career as a teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal and now Director of Innovation have been my dad and Peter DeWitt. My dad taught 2nd and 3rd grade for 35+ years and I have such vivid memories of growing up in his classroom. Visiting on days when I didn’t have school or when I was too young to have even started school yet. My dad taught in Richmond which was very different from where we lived and I grew up. That experience of visiting his classroom has really served me well in life and my career. The biggest mentorship piece that I’ve taken from my dad is that we must be kind to ALL kids. You never know a child’s story, what they’re going through, if they ate breakfast that morning or even dinner last night - only kind words allowed at all times!
Peter DeWitt came into my life at a time when I probably didn’t have time for another mentor but really needed one. It was the first year of my Principalship and Peter and I connected through the SAVMP program. We instantly hit it off and have some personal things in common which I feel made our relationship even stronger. Peter told me to blog - blog and blog some more!
“Adam, you need to develop your blog and write what you’re passionate about!”
I’d blogged for years before but it was intermittent and looking back I can see that it lacked passion. Peter has guided me through many different professional decisions, blogging and I will forever be indebted to his knowledge, kindness, advice, friendship and ability to help me talk through decisions!
So where do we go from here? A few ideas...
- It can be hard to ‘find’ a mentor without feeling forced sometimes. Take a step back and look at who is already in your life personally or professionally. Is there someone you can ‘adopt’ as your mentor without having to find someone new?
- Where are you struggling to make decisions? What’s a challenge for you? Find those growth areas and then a mentor that can help support you moving to the next level and making positive decisions!
- Taking the time to build a PLN can open you up to some incredible educators. Using Voxer and Twitter has allowed both of us to connect and learn from innovative, collaborative, like-minded professionals who want to share with and support others.
- Take advantage of programs like the School Administrator Virtual Mentor Program (SAVMP). Both of us have been mentors to other educators that are located in different parts of the country. While face-to-face is ideal, it shouldn’t limit you to seeking a mentor. It does, however, make that first in-person meeting that much cooler!
One last piece of advice...when you do find a mentor, have fun with the process. Yes, your thinking should be challenged and you will have to try things that will put you out of your comfort-zone, but embrace the opportunity. Laugh a lot. Share your struggles and take time to reflect. Be present and engaged...because you never know when you will one day go from being the mentee to being the mentor, and you will have the opportunity to give to someone what your mentor gave to you. Take it from Steph Curry and President Obama…