Learning to Lead: Why Mentoring Never Gets Old

Mary Beth Kinkead

The only sound in the room was the tearing of gift-wrap beneath my hands.  I was being celebrated for completing my administrative licensure program and securing a position as an assistant principal in a nearby town.

Despite my leadership training, I still felt I was headed for unfamiliar territory.  I had identified all my adult life as a teacher, not an administrator, yet there it was amidst the gift-wrap: a mahogany and brass name plate for my new desk.  My colleagues’ applause turned to uproarious laughter as I retrieved the next gift item, a bottle of Advil...empty, and symbolic of my supervising principal’s need for its contents over the course of the past school year.  But their laughter rang ominously in my ears; what was I getting myself into?  Mercifully, the final item buoyed me: rose tinted sunglasses.

I began last school year as an administrator in my fourth public school system, with nearly a decade of administrative experience under my belt, and a mentor at my side.  I’ve had an official mentor in each of these four school systems and many more informal ones along the way.  As an assistant principal, my obvious mentor was the building principal.  When I accepted my first principalship, my superintendent encouraged me to choose an experienced, sitting principal outside of the district to mentor me.  Next, I was assigned an in-district elementary principal colleague to mentor me for my first year and, finally, my current district assigned an independent, veteran educator and expert in supervision and evaluation as my mentor.  Four systems, four different approaches to ensuring support for a “new hire”.

A mentor relationship provides a formally designated and confidential sounding board for navigating through challenges.  A mentor has lived through many, if not most of the situations a mentee will face, yet he or she is removed from the current one.  A mentor affords the mentee the luxury of being raw without fear of further igniting a situation or the dread of exposing lack of understanding of a topic.  A mentor is able to provide the double satisfaction of empathy and solution.

When I think about it now, I’ve had mentors across the course of my whole career, like the special educator who cajoled me in my first year of teaching to “fake it until you make it” and advised, “when all else fails, have a drink.”  She coached me daily and even took the time to write out some of her advice.  In the moment, I gratefully accepted the support; looking back I recognize it as mentoring and hope I expressed enough gratitude.  Carol McCloud, author of Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: a Daily Guide to Happiness for Kids, writes that when loving attention and care is provided, the giver’s and receiver’s “buckets are filled.”  This woman filled my professional bucket.  Without her “filling” of my bucket, I might have burnt out on cranky parents and a persistent case of being overwhelmed by trying to teach a diverse group of first graders how to read.

A mentor is defined as an experienced and trusted adviser, a private teacher who gives someone lessons in a particular subject.  Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, emphasizes the “trust” portion of this definition.   She cautions professionals who are attempting to  “find” a mentor and encourages us, rather, to seek out mentor relationships that offer a “real and often earned connection felt by both sides.”  She states, “We need to stop telling young women ‘get a mentor and you will excel’ and start telling them ‘excel and you will get a mentor.”   Sandberg’s focus is on the world of business, particularly women in business, however, her ideals can be applied to any field.  My relationships with those I credit as informal mentors embodied the relational connections Sandberg advocates.

During my first principalship, my bucket started filling with new wisdoms.  I remember sitting transfixed as I watched my mentor roughly diagram our conversation in blue pen on the back of an old meeting agenda.  She then rose from her swivel chair, the sunlight glancing off her pearls and politely called out to her administrative assistant, “Could you type this up for me, please?”  It was in that moment that I began to think about how I could better team with my administrative assistant to increase my capacity for students and teachers (or my family!) and decrease the time I had been devoting to transferring chart paper brainstorms to excel spreadsheets.  I credit her with teaching me to identify efficiencies.

During the last decade the policy makers’ demand for “accountability”, driven by a loss of trust in educators, has created an assessment-as-data culture. The noble intent is to measure growth, but the story lines have instead become kids need to meet the benchmark, scores need to indicate growth on district-determined measures, teachers need to be proficient as evidenced by the evaluation rubric; all “quantifiable” measures.  Our nation’s societal norm of wanting to be the best can promote a feeling that we are more concerned about the assessment results than the cultivation well-developed human beings. Ironically, we are in the business of human development.  As principals, we are complex, emotional creatures attempting to understand and lead other complex, emotional creatures.  No matter how deep our understanding of personality theory or multiple intelligences, we have moments in which we are faced with perplexing challenges such as nudging a tired teacher, explaining the school’s practices to a parent without sounding defensive, or witnessing a colleague saying or doing something that leaves us incredulous.  A principal I succeeded intentionally left on the office wall her When Pigs Fly artwork.  She recommended always maintaining a vantage point from which I could see it during difficult conversations.  She deserves the credit for helping me to maintain perspective (and a sense of humor!)

My career has afforded me many opportunities as teacher and administrator; and with each new opportunity, an old favorite was left behind. When I left my most recent principalship I was fully aware that it was a departure from perhaps the hardest -working and most devoted group of educators I might ever encounter under one roof.   The faculty’s collective energy to examine a case from every angle taught me vigilance. Their willingness to stay beyond contract hours (sometimes with their own kids in tow) reinforced my belief that what we do IS “all about the kids.”  Their ideas around leading in-house professional development taught me to encourage initiative and provision time and materials.  As the principal, I was in the obvious mentor role, yet the reciprocal nature of mentoring was at play here.  While not one of these educators was a designated mentor to me, their highly effective collaborations with me and each other became my barometer of best practice and certainly added to my bucket of administrative wisdoms.

Over these years, my mentors filled me in ways that enable me to now do my best to fill others. Sheryl Sandberg observes when mentors “encourage” and teach “by example,” in turn “[we try] to mentor others…”  I attempt do my best to share my lessons learned in identifying efficiencies, maintaining perspective, encouraging initiative and modeling that everything we do must be driven by what is best for kids.  None of these are new concepts, but their power for me was in hearing them from a trusted source, at just the right time, thus providing me the strength to plow forward into the challenging and unknown.  Nearly ten years later, my rose-colored glasses still sit in plain view every day.  To all my mentors, assigned and incidental, formal and informal, I hope that in filling my bucket, yours was filled too.

Mary Beth Kinkead is the director of the Natick (MA) Early Childhood Center, and formerly an elementary school principal in Wellesley and Ashland, MA.