Reflecting on my now twenty-five-year professional career and having more opportunities to engage in our profession more broadly, meeting more educators, I am honored to be called a mentor. I’m not always comfortable accepting this compliment, title, or role because I view myself more as a colleague, peer, friend, or thought partner who loves the work we get to do as professional educators. Likewise, I’m not sure I make a good mentor since I often talk too much. However, I want to encourage you to reflect on the impact and importance of formal and informal mentors and the different roles they have played in your career and how you might also bring others along.
Benefactors, Cheerleaders, and Experts
The first type of mentor that came into my life was the benefactor. The person who saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself. Someone who opened doors and brought me into places I clearly did not belong. I am grateful to benefactors like Tim Wiens who invited me to be part of the Boston Trinity Academy start-up and to sit at the table at the founding meetings for CESA. Or Margo Littlehale who called me back home from California to teach at my neighborhood public school. But the benefactor who got me started was Ned Colletti, opening the door for me to start my post-college professional career as a scout for the San Francisco Giants. Ned consistently lived out a question that he consistently asked me, “Who are you bringing with you?” Although I didn’t stay in professional baseball, Ned has remained a significant part of my life and career development. Think of your benefactor and take that one more step to be a benefactor to an up and coming leader.
The second type of mentor that I realized years later I needed but hadn’t appreciated was the cheerleader. This is the mentor who sees you, your work, and your journey and consistently encourages you to continue onward (even if you might be on the wrong path). I think of how Gary Arnold sends me regular texts urging me forward in my work and challenges my opinions on Twitter. Jack Postma who sends me long email reflections followed by phone calls during his battle with cancer about my blogs, podcasts, or anything else, giving consistent encouragement to think about complexity. Finally, Steve Whitaker, who has sat next to me in many meetings, elbowing me to move past my irritations to share my belief or ask my question. We all need cheerleaders like this.
The third type of mentor is the expert we seek out to learn from or under. Kathy Marcyniuk was my mentor-teacher during my student teaching experience at Willowbrook High School. She told me I was a below average teacher, and if I wanted to get good, she was happy to help if I asked. I humbled myself, got the help I needed during that year of practice-teaching, but consistently asked Kathy to observe my classes, review my lesson plans, or critique my assessments for another seven years. Likewise, I sought out Jon Keith and David Roth to discover how they turned around a failed school. Steven Loomis taught me how to think more deeply about the philosophical underpinnings of my work that might lead to greater flourishing. And finally Steve Humprhies, who as the new superintendent of District 88 took me on as an intern during my M.Ed. program even though I was the union grievance chair and part of the union’s contract negotiation team. Many of you reading this are experts. When is the last time that you contributed to the flourishing of another?
Relationship Changes People
I’m sure you can think of other types of mentors, but I wonder how we can be more generous to each other whether it be as a benefactor, cheerleader, or expert for other educators. The important thing I learned through the process of both being chosen by or choosing a mentor is that it is a relationship that changes both people. David Nour calls this “Transformational Mentorship” in his article “The Best Mentorships Help Both People Grow” where he states:
“Transformational mentoring is a term I use to describe a relationship that offers something powerful to both the mentee and the mentor—and it requires an equal amount of work from both. As a mentee, the trick to fully engaging your mentor lies in finding the right person: someone with whom you can build a relaxed, inspiring camaraderie, driven by curiosity as opposed to the binary instructor-student exchange we normally teach. These mentorships can be formed with people senior to yourself or peers of equal stature, as long there is a mutual desire for personal and professional growth.”
A Challenge for You
As our profession rapidly changes with a wave of retirements, unprecedented challenges, and fewer college graduates entering this space, my hope is that you might consider being a mentor in the way you might be comfortable. Who can you bring with you into greater opportunity as a benefactor? Who can you encourage and cheerlead for as they push into new spaces in the profession? Who will be the expert to help others maximize their skills and potential? Lastly, how might you allow these relationships to change you as a person and professional?
Nour, D. (2022, January 5). The Best Mentorships Help Both People Grow. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/01/the-best-mentorships-help-both-people-grow.
Erik Ellefsen is director of networks and improvement at the Baylor Center for School Leadership where he manages the Christian Leadership Transformation Project, a program designed to equip Christian educators around the globe by gathering networks of school teams around problems of practice to catalyze school improvement and student flourishing.
Erik has served in education for more than two decades as a teacher, coach, consultant, dean of academics at Boston Trinity Academy, principal at Chicago Christian High School, and grievance chairman for the American Federation of Teachers. Most recently, he served as a college counselor at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, CA. He currently serves as senior fellow for both the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE) and Cardus. He also hosts the Digical Education podcast, is a collaborator and author of the Mindshift project, and a researcher and coauthor on the Future Ready project.
The important thing I learned through the process of both being chosen by or choosing a mentor is that it is a relationship that changes both people.