The thing I’ve learned about mentoring over the years is that it’s more about being present than it is about being perfect.
Every stakeholder in every school needs a mentor.
The tricky thing about finding mentors is we often miss out because we feel intimidated by our secret heroes. Inspiring personalities can be simultaneously charismatic and intimidating in the exact same conversation. How do we push through jitters in order to become a better mentee?
Realize you have too much to lose if you let a mentor pass you by.
I was incredibly lucky to have once worked with Paula Baxter.
Paula is one of the brightest, kindest, most inspired principals on the planet. It never ceases to amaze me how many educators I know who have a ‘Paula story.’ Paula is one of those rare administrators who make every member of the school feel special. She’s also the person I immediately think of whenever I hear the word ‘integrity.’ I could blog on and on about her strengths, but it’s probably more important to pivot here and talk about how incredibly intimidating I used to (okay, sometimes still even now) find her. The rest of this post is going to unpack why that is a (very) good thing.
feel all the feels means feeling nervous too.
Years back, after reading Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, I had a quick conversation with Paula about the ways I was blending gamestorming and visual note taking in my classroom. She asked me to run a quick workshop on her campus for a small gathering of teachers. When I arrived to her campus, it was clear that Paula had just wrapped up an incredibly busy day (take a scroll through her Twitter feed and you’ll see how visible she is around her new school). I told her it would be no problem for her to skip the workshop, but she insisted on being there. Not only was she present, but she was 110% engaged. I’m sure she could have been fielding emails or catching up on missed messages, but no, there she was throwing herself into each activity. There’s two lessons I’ve kept from that day:
1) Even the smartest, most amazing people have more to learn–the key is to throw yourself into it, and to prioritize learning, no matter what.
2) Great leaders learn side by side with their team.
Sure, it is always a bit daunting to run a workshop with a ‘secret hero’ in the crowd, but the more I learn about being an educator, the more I realize I need to seek out those who will rack my nerves.
Comfort zones are not where you want to set up camp.
Those who make us nervous make for the best mentors. People like Paula force us to want to up our games. They remind us to have higher standards for ourselves and our colleagues. That feeling of intimidation is a provocation: where do you want to go next? Energy, focus, and commitment ooze from Paula Baxter. And yes, that is intimidating as hell, because it makes you want to be that good at your own job, and it forces you to question if you have what it takes to start off on that path to improvement.
Being a good mentee means that you have to be vulnerable enough to be intimidated. I’m not saying this is easy, but it does get easier the more you practice it.
The best mentors want to work with people who are really and truly coachable.
What are you doing to make yourself more coachable? I’ve often found that one of the best ways of getting into a coachable mindset is to let go. Let go of your own expectations for the educator (or person) you feel you need to be. Loosen your grip on the definition you’ve constructed for yourself. Sometimes that narrative we tell ourselves about the person we are limits and controls our ability to move forward. Make space for other people to give you feedback that could completely contradict the way you see yourself. August Turak puts this another way in his brilliant Forbes piece “Are You Coachable? The Five Steps to Coachability”:
Even when we do find a mentor we often put him in an impossible situation. We implicitly insist that we will only give up control once we have seen results. In fact we only get results if we are willing to give up control. Unwillingness to surrender control is the single biggest reason for the lamentable fact that most authentic change is precipitated by a crisis. Ironically, the reason why most of us need a coach in the first place is to learn how to give up control.
The best mentees invite change.
If you get a great mentor, don’t waste their energy by trying to gain their appreciation. I know how busy Paula is, and I know I’m not the only person on the planet who calls her a mentor. So if I do ask her for feedback, I’m willing to be challenged–in fact, whenever I’ve sought out her help, I’m hoping she’s going to bring me a completely different perspective. She knows more than I do—and that can be both intimidating AND invigorating. J.T. O’Donnell addresses this hurdle in her INC. post: “The Surprising Reason You May Not Be Coachable”:
No. 1 reason some people aren’t coachable
They don’t really want help–they want validation.
I have to believe that coming across a great mentor like Paula Baxter is a little bit of a karmic win. It has taken me a number of years to be more vulnerable, to let go of control, and to be brave enough to value feedback over validation. It took me a decade of teaching to realize it isn’t about being perfect, it is about perfectly coming to terms with your own imperfections. Instead of striving to find the perfect mentor, start by becoming just a little bit better at being the mentee.
Paula Baxter, if you are reading this, thank you for intimidating me to the core, I could not be more proud to publicly call you my mentor. #TeamPaula
***Update: Including a few of the comments left to this post via Facebook
Flickr has an amazing bank of Creative Commons images. Thanks for these!
Like it or not, you are now my mentor, Tricia. And, yes, I am a little intimidated. You throw something my way with every interaction. I’m never sure if I want to take something on, but I’m also afraid not to. Thanks for pushing me.
I’m humbled by your comment—even by the gesture you make when you take the time to read my musings–I appreciate it so so much. Chatting with you has pushed me to think (and rethink) about why I believe so much in the power of Twitter and blogging. I’ve value those push and pull chats so much, so thank you for making time.
Looking forward to the next one!
Tricia, you are truly a brilliant thinker, artist, designer and engineer who has and will influence the field of education. Perhaps your greatest gift (of more than many) is the creative ways you choose to celebrate and acknowledge the synergy created through collaboration.
Wow, Kathy–thank you so much. After reading your comment I’ve been thinking about what school would be like if one day a month we each did something nice to celebrate a mentor/colleague….
Tricia, your post brought me to tears (not hard, I know) and does an excellent job describing much of what makes Paula amazing. Importantly, it recognises the profoundly positive effect one person can have on someone else’s life.
I’m still struggling to find the words to fully explain what Paula means to me, but I’ll give it a go.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a few great teaching mentors, such as Karen O’Connell, Carol Ashton, and Lynn Taylor, but the bond I have with Paula was transformative. She made me see myself as a very different educator to the one I thought I was. And it was because of the mentor-mentee relationship we had. As much as Paula was my mentor, she made me feel like we were partners.
There was never any ego when talking with Paula. I was able to be open and honest about anything and never felt judged. She definitely challenged me to be my best and at times saw me at my worst. But she was always there beside me, and I hope she felt that I was always there beside her too.
From the moment I met Paula I knew she was the Principal-mentor I was looking for. I had brought JWA as far as I could and it deserved better than I was able to give. I loved our students and staff and odd little school but my lack of experience brought limitations. Paula was exactly who we all needed. She really brought out the best in all of us, even under really difficult circumstances.
The words I associate with Paula most are – yes, definitely integrity. Paula does what’s best for students EVERY SINGLE DAY. But the other word I most associate with her is learner. Paula loves to learn and I think that is a huge part of what makes her a great educator and mentor. She never acts like the sage on a stage, she is always willing to listen, to learn, to share and collaborate. Her enthusiasm for learning was a big part of why we were all there joining your awesome gamestorming session at the end of an exhausting day.
And while I miss Paula everyday, she is now the better angel on my shoulder. And for that I am truly grateful.
I love your comment here, Heidi—I too also try to think things through the lens of : WWPD? (what would Paula do?)
That bit about her incredible listening skills is spot on, and the mark of a true leader.
Thanks for sharing, Heidi!