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May 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 8

Tell Me About … / A Mentor Who Nurtured Your Abilities as a Leader

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LeadershipProfessional Learning
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Never Stop Giving Back

Ruth Gelina, a retired public school teacher who is now in her mid-80s, taught me that as teachers and leaders who love children and learning, we are never too old to make a difference. We never quit being teachers. In her 80s, Ruth has tutored children in reading and began a mentoring program that partners women over 60 with younger women. Ruth has taught me that no matter our age, as long as we are willing, there's always a life to influence both inside and outside the classroom. Her example inspired me to earn my doctorate at age 54 and to continue making a difference.
Mary Martin, associate professor, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois

Daily Encouragement Counts

My first principal when I became a teacher was an amazing leader. He came to my classroom every day and frequently left encouraging notes and e-mails mentioning little things he noticed I was doing well as a new teacher. These positive affirmations laid the path for the teacher I became and the leader I am today. His encouragement created the vision for where I was headed. Because he was a daily presence, when we had to have hard conversations about how I could improve, I knew he was on my side. He modeled the power of a humble leader to encourage and empower others. Thank you, Kent!
Judy Bethge, instructor, Lake County Tech Campus, Grayslake, Illinois

Whatever It Takes

A mentor who nurtured my abilities as a leader (and who still does even though we're a few states apart) is Eric Davis, now chief operating officer with Wilson Public Schools, North Carolina. Mr. Davis was my school performance director when I first became a principal with Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. He worked tirelessly to support all principals and demonstrated a can-do attitude by never asking you to do something he wouldn't do himself. One morning when we were to have a big event at the school, I arrived to find him buffing the main hallway. He said that it needed a "shine" and the custodian was busy setting up for the event. He knew that being a great principal meant knowing your community and doing whatever it takes for each student, each family, and each staff member.
Jennifer Connors, principal, Sussex-Wantage School District, Sussex, New Jersey

Inspirational—and Inspired

My original mentor in education leadership was my 8th grade English teacher (later my colleague and department head). He believed that in education, as in life, everyone we meet becomes a small part of who we are. His focus was always on the best interest of the child and on the idea that developing a trusting relationship allows educators to have the greatest impact. He would listen deeply and make a decision only after he really knew an individual and understood all other factors that may be involved. He was inspirational, but was also constantly inspired—by both the students and his colleagues. He always claimed to have learned more at the end of a school year than he had taught.
Paul Coppola, assistant principal, Trumbull Public Schools, Trumbull, Connecticut

"That's Great, But …"

Little did I know that one school leader's words and actions would remain with me after almost three decades of experience in the field of education. Mr. Jim Slick was my superintendent when I was in my early to mid-career teaching years. He would often stop into my classroom to ask how my students were doing. On one occasion, he asked about the district math assessment. I indicated that about 22 of 28 students had passed the assessment. He said that was great, but challenged me to discuss the six students who did not pass. This challenge shifted me to thinking about all students and encouraged me not to make excuses for their lack of learning. Their learning was my responsibility. This attribute was shared by many leaders throughout my career—Dale DeKarske, Mike Dewey, Dave Peterson, and others—who lifted me to become the educator I am today.
Kathy Stewart, superintendent, Saginaw Intermediate School District, Saginaw, Michigan

The Work-Life Balance

I have been a participant in the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute (IPLI), a two-year intensive professional development program for practicing principals. The IPLI program includes mentoring—both individually and in regional cohort groups. The most helpful thing my IPLI mentor, Tim Taylor, has done for me is to remind me about the need for a well-balanced life.
Being a mother of two children, a principal, and a student studying for my Ed.S, I find life extremely overwhelming right now. I am constantly questioning whether I am being a good mother to my children, a good wife to my husband, and a good leader to my staff and students. Tim often allows our cohort group to talk about life and our struggles. As a principal, you rarely have the opportunity to discuss the struggles and stresses of the job. Tim reassures us that it's OK to disconnect from school for an evening or on the weekends to spend quality time with our families. Hearing a superintendent reaffirm that life doesn't always revolve around work is a huge relief and a reassurance that maybe I am doing something right.
Jill Vlcan, principal, Poston Road Elementary, Martinsville, Indiana

Angel in a Trying Time

Mentors are like guardian angels who applaud our efforts when there is cause for celebration and come to our rescue in times of conflict and challenge. As I became acclimated to my first building principal position years ago, my mentor nurtured my leadership abilities in numerous ways—enabling me to move beyond simply surviving to thriving.
During a pivotal learning experience where my ethics as a leader were tested, my mentor met me off campus at a diner long after students and teachers had left for the day. She extended levity and laughter for a few minutes before probing me with reflective questions about the situation. Parents were demanding vocally and forcefully for the removal of a particular group of students from the school. Her inquiries compelled me to get to the heart of the situation so I could develop a plan to work with all stakeholders, communicate my vision and ethical stance, and, most important, advocate for all students. My mentor helped me apply previous learning to a new situation, a skill I value to this day.
As I have become a mentor to new leaders, I similarly encourage them to address the complexity of circumstances and focus on the heart of the work—students.
Tamara Lipke, assistant professor, State University of New York College at Oswego, Oswego, New York

Compassion, Empathy, and Trust

When I worked as an early childhood and elementary principal in a private school in Puerto Rico, the school director was the best mentor I could have asked for. His name was John P. Bartemes. He passed away 10 years ago, but his teachings are still with me every day. He nurtured me as a leader, but as a compassionate human being first. He showed me the importance of building relationships and trust in an organization. I learned that being human is what makes us special, so as a leader I had to be empathetic and try to understand where everyone was coming from. He nurtured my leadership skills by believing in me and supporting my ideas and work. Thus, that is the kind of leader I try to be: one who listens, tries to understand, and empowers others to become leaders too.
Rosalina Burgos, senior director of early childhood education programs, CentroNía, Washington, DC

A Woman Who Raised Her Voice

She grew up in a time when being a woman meant having to constantly prove that you deserved to be present—not just as a teacher in a male-dominated content area, but as a leader. She prevailed. Jocelyn Jones was my mentor and role model, long before I realized it. She nurtured my curiosity, encouraged me to try new strategies (even some that she was pretty sure wouldn't be as effective as I'd planned), and told me I had a voice worth listening to. It's because of her strength, her encouragement, and her incredible passion for education that I too am completing my administrative degree. Her mentorship made me believe in my own value as a school leader, and I'm eternally grateful.
Ericka Keefauver, instructional coach, Hermiston School District, Hermiston, Oregon

"She Showed Me I Could Teach Math"

As I was growing up, I just knew I was never any good at math. What I came to realize is that I never really learned math until I became an elementary teacher. When I taught in Howard County, Maryland, Kay Sammons was the supervisor of elementary mathematics. She showed me that not only was I good at math, I could also be good at teaching math. She offered words of encouragement and provided scaffolded opportunities for leadership; before I knew it, I was teaching other teachers and presenting at national conferences! When I left Howard County, I even did my doctoral work in elementary math education.
Kay's invitations to share what I was doing in the classroom and her positive reinforcement of my efforts became a model for my work as the leader of an elementary school; her example still influences me today. Whenever I encourage a teacher to share at a staff meeting or to propose a conference presentation, I remember what it felt like when Kay did that for me.
Lisa Wilson Carboni, head of lower school, Carolina Friends School, Durham, North Carolina

Confidence and Energy

I am so grateful that as a newly named principal I was a participant in the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute (IPLI). Rhonda Roos was my mentor, and her leadership, encouragement, and guidance positively influenced my growth as a school leader. Dr. Roos shared her tricks of the trade for dealing with difficult employees and pushy parents. Her style of direct and focused conversation fit my personality and needs perfectly. Having an experienced and successful administrator as my mentor gave me confidence to lead with positive energy.
Julie Straight, principal, Greater Clark County School Corporation, Jeffersonville, Indiana

A Mentor's Legacy

A mentor who helped shape me as a leader among teachers was Nelson Brown, principal at Columbia Elementary School in Madison, Alabama, where I served as a teacher leader and coach in the school role of instructional partner. The most helpful thing that Mr. Brown did for me was to model leadership that was kind and wise, putting people at the heart of all matters within the school. Mr. Brown modeled continual self-improvement, transparency, and dedication to growing others in leadership roles at every level, from administrator to student. He practiced listening more than speaking, questioned with genuine care and curiosity, and provided feedback that helped the educators and students in his care to grow. He treated people with respect, acted as a servant leader, modeled commitment to lifelong learning, and constantly pushed our students and school toward success. Mr. Brown helped instill a drive in me to want more for myself and the teachers and students I serve.
Alyson Carpenter, professional learning specialist, Athens City Schools, Athens, Alabama

She Helped Me Believe

After I applied for a half-time position in an educational service agency, the interviewer, Nancy, did not give me the job; instead, she offered me a full-time position in the area of Title I instruction, more specifically reading. I took the position very unsure of how this would fit into my career. Although I have a master's in reading, I had never been a Title I teacher. I also had never facilitated meetings, created long range plans, supported a variety of teachers in different districts, or delivered professional development. But Nancy saw something in me.
Over nine years, this woman never made me feel as if I was working for her. We were a team. She welcomed all my questions. She valued my opinions and questioned me more and more so I could see the point she was making. She noted my strengths and catered to them, building my confidence and knowledge base. Our entire team became stronger because of her insights into relationships. We valued the relationships we had with each other and our district teachers and administrators. Nancy became my mentor not only in her leadership style, but also in how I built relationships with my colleagues as well as in my personal life. The most helpful thing she did for me was to believe in me and help me believe in myself.
Paula Harms, reading specialist, Granton Area Schools, Granton, Wisconsin

Principals Tackling Problems Together

I have participated in the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute (IPLI). The most helpful thing my IPLI mentor, Bobbie Jo Monohan, has done is to help my cohort share and discuss critical issues we each face in our schools. For example, at a recent cohort dinner meeting, one of our principals was facing a serious problem with his assistant dean, and his superintendent wasn't helping him rectify the problem. Bobbie Jo helped lead our discussion to provide this principal with both moral support and suggestions on a plan to resolve his issues. In every one of our meetings, one of the four of us is facing a tough issue, and our mentor helps guide us through resolving our own issues with advice and counsel from our cohort team.
Greg Dettinger, principal, Concord Community Schools, Elkhart, Indiana

EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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