Mentoring: The Art of Growing Teachers and Leaders

I owe my 35 year career in education to my mentors––the department chairs, assistant heads, and heads of school who saw promise in me, guided me, helped me navigate the complexities of teaching, and shaped both my career and my character.

I remember my first mentor, the department chair who greeted me at the door of my first school and exclaimed, “Now that you're here, we are a better school!” In our weekly meetings, she helped me understand that good teaching was all in the trying: planning a lesson, piloting a new idea, testing it, succeeding, and sometimes failing. Week after week, usually on Friday afternoons, my mentor sought me out, asked me about my classes, listened hard, and helped me know that whatever went wrong that week was OK. There would always be Monday to try again.
My second mentor at a different school helped me with the craft of teaching, coaching me to draw out the students’ voices in class and consider who was doing the work—me or them. My mentor suggested articles for me to read and asked, “What new initiative would you like to try?” In both the practical and the philosophical, this mentor shepherded me every step of the way, providing moral support on the tough days and celebrating my successes on the good days.
The work of a skilled mentor, one who provides ongoing support and guidance as well as institutional and cultural knowledge, can reverberate for decades. Well-mentored teachers tend to stay longer, learn to recognize their own leadership skills, mentor other teachers well, adopt a posture of continued professional learning, and are a benefit to the culture and morale of the school. They come to know, as I did, that to make your teaching rich, you need to make your life outside of teaching rich. As a head of school, I also know that good teaching candidates have become increasingly harder to find. Fewer college graduates are considering teaching and more educators—including my peer heads of school—are leaving the profession. I believe that a strong mentoring program at individual schools is one way to turn the tide.

Creating a Culture of Mentorship  

Mentoring future leaders is about cultivating a recognition and an understanding that leadership supports the people who support other people. It's not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and it takes time to mentor well. Mentoring is a job like any assigned position and a mentor needs dedicated class time with their mentee(s).

Any launch of a new mentoring program needs full-throated support from the head of school and the entire leadership team. As head of school, I began thinking about how we could create a culture of mentorship at The Miami Valley School (OH) to support all faculty and staff at different levels. Although informal mentoring was already happening, my regular meetings with new faculty let me know that it was not as consistent as we would like it to be. Next year, we will be starting with divisional mentors who will shepherd new faculty members in their division. More importantly, the mentors themselves will be mentored by the assistant head for academics to provide a clear throughline to the information and guidance mentees receive.  

Building a Program

The best mentoring programs succeed when school leaders model professional curiosity and invest in colleagues’ development––and when they make mentoring an essential part of school life. Here are some ways to do that.
  • Honor the time it takes to do onboarding properly. Write clear job descriptions for mentors and pay them a stipend (or something that honors their time). Consider providing an eager donor with the opportunity to fund a mentoring program. 
  • Build a new faculty cohort, but be mindful and intentional about how to mentor each of your faculty members. Consider cultural identity when pairing new faculty with mentors and be intentional in assigning mentors to new faculty of underrepresented identities.
  • Consider not only institutional needs but the unique needs of each individual. Notice the differences in each person’s needs—whether the person is new to the school, the role, or to teaching. The mentoring structure should be both dynamic and flexible. 
  • Create opportunities for new faculty to connect with one another. Build a reading or walking group during lunch, host a faculty pub crawl, or plan meditation and yoga sessions. Build social opportunities during work time.
  • Encourage and provide professional development and focus on retention and development. Invite new faculty and leaders to attend NAIS conferences, including the Annual Conference and the People of Color Conference. Teams that go together will have opportunities to connect and bring back ideas to your school.
  • Create and support faculty and staff affinity groups. Find a way to make this sacred time, perhaps as an early morning or dinner, to allow them to bond and to know that whatever they are facing, they are not alone. Help faculty who are new to the area navigate the school and the surrounding community.
Schools are like organisms, and teachers are the cells within them. If they are not nurtured, fueled, and allowed to grow and evolve, they wither and die. This is true of leaders as well. Mentors help us imagine not only our best selves but also our best school—I learned that from my mentors, who I can only repay by paying it forward.
This article is based on a workshop from the NAIS 2022 Annual Conference workshop in which the author presented with Mike Boyer and Tiffany Taylor Smith from The Miami Valley School and University of Dayton (OH), and Andrew Jones and Michaela Pembroke from Greens Farms Academy (CT).
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Elizabeth F. Cleary

Elizabeth F. Cleary is head of The Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio.