“What’s in it for the mentor?” George Costanza asks in a classic Seinfeld episode. “Is there money involved?” When Jerry lists the benefits of mentorship (“Respect, admiration, prestige”), George scoffs and asks if the protégé would “pick up stuff for the mentor… laundry, dry cleaning?”
I’ve never picked up anyone’s dry cleaning, but I have been lucky in my career to have had a number of mentors in both official and unofficial capacities. I can trace the lasting effect they’ve had on my career and how they shaped my understanding of what it means to be a professional. Additionally, because of their very different personal and professional styles, I learned something unique from each of them.
What follows is a list of people who both believed in and challenged me, and who consistently demonstrated the highest levels of professional ethics. I want them to know what their time and attention meant to me.
First there was was BF, my wonderful headmaster at a small international school in Indonesia. I was a newly-minted school librarian and eager to learn and grow in my position. BF was widely admired by the school community for his empathetic and supportive personal style and his unwavering commitment to doing whatever was best for kids. He also responded to every email in a timely fashion– regardless of how insignificant the question or request. Responding promptly to email is something that I have also tried to incorporate into my professional practice, because I remember how much I appreciated his quick responses. I thank BF for teaching me the importance of empathy and timely communication.
Next was DF, who was perhaps the most directly influential mentor that I had, as she and I worked together on a daily basis as we led a high school library. She and I are still close, which reflects the strong, positive nature of the relationship we built. DF has the most impressive work ethic of anyone I’ve ever met. She has boundless energy and the willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done in order to accomplish a task, no matter how large or small, whether physical or mental in nature. Even though she was the head of our library, DF was willing to let me create programs and try new things– and would then jump in to support me every step of the way. She had no discernible ego about her position of leadership, and was also truly committed to supporting the goals of the school district through her work in the library. I thank DF for teaching me the value of encouraging others as well as the value of hard work and pitching to help until the job is done.
At the same school, I met TS, PB and KS, all of whom mentored me in important ways. TS was hands-down the most intensely passionate educator I have ever met. He was an administrator who was so supportive of teachers and students that he was willing to allow both to take risks and try new things if the purpose was to grow. When I came up with an idea for a new staff PD program, I pitched it to TS and received so much support and encouragement that there was no way I was going to fail. I thank TS for showing me that there is a place for intense passion and even argument in education as long as the goal is to help students succeed.
PB was also an administrator at the school and spent many hours of her time with me as I worked through my Master’s degree in educational leadership, for which she was my official mentor. PB and I had many long conversations, and I felt that she did take a special interest in supporting me and my career. Several years later, when I was contemplating a move back to the U.S. and looking for another job in education, she actually offered to talk to me on the phone about interviewing and job searching while I was still overseas. I of course took her up on it and received valuable insight. She was also one of the people who, when I expressed fear for my career when my family and I decided to leave our jobs and move overseas, consistently told me that “Good people land on their feet.” She never doubted me, and for that I thank PB.
KS was also an administrator at the school, and was a mentor who always challenged me to get better and do more. When he came to the school I was in a great position, but after we started working together he really leveled-up the content and quality of my work. I always enjoyed our conversations because he challenged me to deepen my understanding of school leadership and of my own capabilities. He believed in me to a degree that my own vision of what I could do in my career expanded exponentially, and for that I thank KS.
Finally, there was DH. DH was an official mentor, assigned to me in my new role as a district administrator. DH himself was a former longtime administrator, who possesses a wealth of experience in education and in educational coaching. Being a new district administrator comes with a learning curve, as it’s inherently different than working in a school building, and the ways in which communication needs to occur at this level are uniquely important. As an outsider to the organization, DH was able to help me understand how to work within the district office system and to become more effective in my approach. I experienced some significant challenges during the year we worked together, but was able to maintain both perspective (most days) and a commitment to my professional path largely due to his wise observations, recommendations, and unwavering professional support. I thank DH for teaching me how to design and maintain a successful career in educational administration, and for embodying the essence of a great mentor– even without the dry cleaning pickup.
My advice for prospective mentees: Don’t wait for an official mentor– look around you now and ask, “Who do I admire? Who is doing this right? Who has mastered skills that I’d like to have?” You can observe them in action, see how they handle various scenarios. You can also ask to meet with them occasionally. Come prepared with questions you’d like answered: “How do you manage x, y, z? What would you do if x, y, z happened?” Have no ego. You can learn from anyone, even someone in a lateral or lower position than you on the organizational chart.
My advice for prospective mentors: Be generous with your time, know that others may be watching and learning from you without your being aware, and have a firm understanding that a small gesture, word, or note from you may have unknown positive affects on someone still making their way. The benefits of being a mentor may not impress George Costanza, but mentoring’s value can yield truly immeasurable rewards for the rest of us.