A few years ago, I sat in a principal leadership team meeting just prior to the start of a new school year. As often happens during a good welcome back meeting, we started off with some team building activities. Some of you may be familiar with the River of Life protocol. Basically, you take some time individually to reflect on your life memories and experiences that have shaped you personally and professionally, and you create a visual map that represents your journey through life. Then you share.
It’s a fun and often poignant activity. It’s also one I have done probably half a dozen times in different settings with different groups. Back to the principals’ meeting, I decided that this time around I would chronicle my journey through the mentors who have taken an active interest in my professional development. While I have always known I’ve had advocates and supporters on my journey, taking time to actually map out the names and unique influence each mentor had in my life filled me with a tremendous sense of gratitude.
I thought about Dr. Alex Molnar, director of the Education Policy Studies Lab at Arizona State University, who gave me a job as a research intern while I was still an undergraduate. My first project was to go through a soon-to-be published research report that needed serious revision. I spent countless hours reworking citations, rewriting sections, and bringing uniformity to the report format. When the report went for publication, Dr. Molnar added me to the author list. I had my first taste of real academic publishing, and over the next three years, he would give me opportunity after opportunity to contribute and learn. Dr. Molnar’s mentorship led to university recognitions, a Fulbright scholarship, and most importantly, the development of an academic skill set that I rely on every day.
I thought about Dr. Gregg Good, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at Westwood high school where I was employed as a Spanish teacher. Dr. Good recruited me to teach IB Spanish, and to co-sponsor a Model United Nations program. Those opportunities brought access to tremendous professional development, ongoing collaboration with many of the strongest classroom teachers at the school, and chaperoning student trips to Paris, Dublin, Athens, and London. Our office chats yielded some pieces of advice I took to heart – never be afraid to ask for money if it’s for kids, don’t ever be an assistant principal (it’s how the system beats out all of your creativity), and surround yourself with doers who refuse to accept that things cannot change.
I thought about Gia Truong, superintendent and now CEO of Envision Schools who mentored and supervised me during my initial years as a high school principal. She was a champion for equity who constantly challenged me (and everyone around her) to raise expectations for student learning. She would rarely tell me what to do, but used thoughtful questions to help me work through my decisions. Her leadership advice challenged me in deep, personal ways. Her invitations to embrace difficult conversations and continually interrupt the use of language that isolates or demeans continue to ring in my ears. She was and is a powerful woman whose urgency for the work continues to inspire me.
I am greatly indebted to these and other professional mentors who have sharpened my skills and shaped my perspectives on the difficult and deeply meaningful work of educating young people. When the urgency of the work could draw them to other, productive uses of their time, these mentors chose to focus on me. Perhaps that personal investment in others is the true hallmark of great leadership.