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
Flickr has an amazing bank of Creative Commons images. Thanks for these!