Reimagining Mentoring Programs

by Chris Bronke

I still remember my required weekly new department chair meetings like they were yesterday.  My mentor at the time, Jill Rose, still a dear friend, and I would sit down with our checklist (adapted from the new teacher mentor checklist) and go item by prescribed item, crossing each one off, until we were finished.  And while some of these items were essential to me learning the culture of my new school and the logistics of this new job, many were out of place, forced, and some even past-due by the time we got to them.

When thinking about mentor programs, I will say this: on one hand, mentor programs for new teachers have come a long way in the 13 years I have been in education.  Shifting from helping new teachers adjust to the school culture to truly being educational thought partners, districts have and do see the value of investing in a mentor who can do both, empowering the new teacher to adjust and grow professionally. However, even in these times of improved mentor programs for new teachers, districts seem to be neglecting, or at least not focusing enough on, the mentor programs needed for their new leaders (this could be instructional coaches, department chairs, assistant principals, principals and even district administration). As a result, too often new leaders are left with mentor programs that fall short for three reasons.  

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  1. Two-way streets can only take you two places

While this may sound a bit confusing, when one works with only one other person, the advice and/or discussion is limited–that is a fact.  So, those conversations can, for t
he most part, only take you further on the path of what you already believed, or down the path of what your mentor thinks.  Hence the two-way street taking yo to one of two places.

  1. Being inside creates unavoidable bias

No matter how much training a district does, a mentor who is at the same school as the mentee has a bias that is brought to the table, perhaps towards others in the school, programs, the contract, the union, or a whole host of other elements.  Now, don’t get me wrong, that isn’t always a bad thing and can provide valuable insight for a new hire; however, it can also lead to the new hire having unfair opinions formed without really even realizing it.

  1.  Programs aren’t designed for leaders

I certainly don’t want to paint the entire nation of schools with a broad brush, but in my experience even the best, most well-developed mentor programs are designed for new teachers, not new leaders. While schools may attempt to adapt these programs for leaders, they tend to fall short, becoming yet “another thing” that already busy educators are forced to do.  The topics we are asked to explore don’t fit with the real issues new leaders are facing.

So what if we reimagined the mentorship structure?

Here at the Conference on English Leadership, we were dealing with some of these very questions as we tried to reimagine our Emerging Leader Fellowship program.  We wanted to try to combat some of these issues that the traditional mentoring programs have and/or some of the problems that our first iteration of our own program had.  Traditionally, this program has paired new leaders from around the country with a mentor in a one-on-one virtual partnership.  And while this had some benefits, we found that it still came up short of truly supporting new leaders in the ways they really need.  

So, beginning with our 2016 class of Emerging Leaders, we created mentor pods in which three to four new leaders from around the country were paired with a mentor so that the whole group could engage in deep conversation around important trends, moves, and decisions in educational leadership.  What came out of it?

  1.  A four-way street can take you to endless placesscreen-shot-2017-02-10-at-7-44-07-pm

By adding more voices than two to the conversation, this experience can take all involved to new places.  No longer is it just about one mentor imparting his/her wisdom onto a mentee, but it is about rich conversations in which all voices bring unique and valued perspectives to the table, pushing everyone’s thinking, including the mentor.  The mentor actually ends up playing the role of facilitator, leading the conversations but listening as much as talking.

Class of 2016 Emerging Leader, Sara Schumacher, says it best when she says, “The ability to discuss challenges I’m having with the work I’m trying to do as a new DC (department chair) and seek outside input has been invaluable. It provides me the support in knowing that I’m not alone in making these moves, but also forces me to step outside of my own lens and get perspective on the issue at hand. It breathes life into my work as an emerging leader trying to find my way to know that I have a group I can lean on and also extend my thinking.”

  1.  We can’t judge that which we don’t know

By bringing together people from different schools, districts, and states, the level of bias is reduced greatly.  Sure, we will always take our biases into any conversations, but the fact that those listening to a problem don’t know anyone else involved in it or the school dynamics and/or any other factor allows for fresh and unbiased opinions to surface.  This also helps build a great sense of community in that it truly becomes a judgement-free zone.

As James Hultgren, class of 2016 Emerging Leader, says, “our mentorship program has been delightful.  I have enjoyed the community and fellowship amongst our team.  Everyone is willing to share their expertise, and fresh perspectives, which has made me a better teacher and leader.”

  1.  Leaders are helping leaders in a program designed for leaders

Unlike a lot of other programs in which a teacher mentor program has been adapted to fit leaders, this program was built by and designed for leaders.  As a result, the activities and conversations are meaningful.  For example, my team this year recently read Five Dysfunctions of a Team to best help all of us think through team dynamics as we started the school year.  Instead of attending to some checklist of discussion topics, we have the ability and expertise to create organic and authentic agendas and activities to help push us all forward.  

Class of 2016 Emerging Leader, Amanda Melchor, illustrates this organic agenda creation best.  She emailed the team five minutes before a scheduled call and said “help…I know we were going to talk about the text, but I have like five questions I NEED HELP WITH.”  So, we ditched our plan to discuss the book and worked to support Amanda through rich conversation and collaborative problem solving.

Here is the catch, this structure, while being used by CEL to mentor literacy leaders, could easily be adapted by schools, districts, and other national organizations to mentor new teachers, too.  Think back to your first or second year on the job…how meaningful would it have been to have a virtual conversations with three other new teachers and one veteran teacher all from different states in an effort to collaboratively grow, a place to share your struggles where no one will or can judge because they can’t fully ascertain your situation?
So, as you think about your role as a mentor coordinator, district leader, new teacher, veteran literacy leader or a new, up-and-coming rock star in the field, consider your approach to mentoring–be it by applying to be a mentor or fellow in CEL’s Emerging Leader Fellowship program or by talking to other district leaders to reimagine your own leadership mentoring programs.  Because the reality is this, even the best of mentors is only as good as the structure in which they are allowed and empowered to mentor.  

Chris Bronke

Christopher Bronke is English Department Chair in Downers Grove, Illinois. Follow him on Twitter: @MrBronke and check out his blog: www.medium.com/@mrbronke.

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