GUEST BLOG: Mentoring the Next Generation

by Mark Hennes | Feb 05, 2018

Quote of Note
"Managers develop organizations; leaders develop people."
- Robin S. Sharma

Our guest blogger this week is Susan Voigt. She has served as a Program Evaluation and Data Specialist at CAIU since May 2005 and has a total of more than 20 years of experience in the field of education. At the district level, Ms. Voigt has served as a Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Director of Special Education, learning support teacher, and life skills teacher. Since joining the CAIU team, she has provided local, regional, and state-wide services to districts, other intermediate units, and the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units. Her areas of expertise include grant and program evaluations, data analysis, research, survey development, school climate, afterschool programs, curriculum alignment, and STEM.

The unopened envelope waited for me on my new desk. The previous Friday, I had been a teacher. It was Monday and my first day as a new supervisor of special education in a different district, in a different intermediate unit, in the middle of a school year. My position had been vacant for over six months. This letter, on official Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) stationery, notified me that my new district was scheduled for cyclical compliance monitoring in six weeks! No one had been overseeing the special education department or begun any preparation work for the monitoring during the vacancy. Yikes! Where do I even start?

Fortunately, I had stepped into a region that was very close-knit and had a neighbors-help-neighbors attitude. The intermediate unit staff and my colleagues from other districts provided examples of documents needed and points to consider. However, the person whose support had the most impact on me was the PDE special education point of contact (SPOC) who would be leading the monitoring. He realized that I was brand-new and took it upon himself to mentor me through the preparation process even though it was beyond his job requirements. Every week leading up to the monitoring, he called to answer questions and set mini-goals of documents to collect, information to seek, or preparations to complete. About two weeks before the scheduled monitoring, he spent a whole day in my office conducting a mock monitoring visit. He helped me understand what was expected, how to answer questions during the interviews, and how to avoid common mistakes.

Six very short weeks later, the actual monitoring team arrived on the scheduled dates. I was still a nervous wreck -- it was my first audit as a supervisor after all! Yet, the monitoring days went relatively smoothly thanks to the guidance I had received. Due to the six-month vacancy prior to my arrival, there were a number of corrective actions to be made. But there were also many items that we passed easily because the SPOC had taken the time beforehand to make sure I was prepared.

During our debriefing after the monitoring, I expressed my great appreciation for his support. He humbly tried to brush it aside and said he was only doing his job. I repeated my appreciation for the time he took to support a new administrator. After a moment, he finally accepted my thanks and asked for only one thing in return – that I “pay it forward” by mentoring someone else to prepare for a future monitoring. More than 15 years later, I still relate this story every time I am working with a new project director as I help them prepare for a grant or program audit. I walk each director through a mock audit helping them understand and collect the needed documents, practice the interviews, and avoid common errors, just as that SPOC had guided me years before.

As leaders, I believe it is our responsibility to mentor a new generation of leaders as they step into advanced positions or prepare to take over the leadership of teams. Here are some techniques I learned from him or have learned along the way, which help me when mentoring others. First, offer support as advice from the perspective of “someone who has been there and wants others to succeed too.” I feel that this adds credibility to my support, as I understand and empathize with the struggles as a new leader.

Second, offer advice in the form of a question even if it is a document the mentee needs to retrieve or knowledge that he probably already knows. For example, I might ask, “Do you have access to those attendance records or know who can get them for you?” There will be times when direct advice is necessary, but this method allows him to process it on his own. In my experience, anytime I could put the ownership of the action into the hands of my mentee, the more he was able to learn and grow from the experience.

Third, acknowledge your mistakes and let her know that it is OK to do so. It is part of the business of being a leader. Learning from my mistakes might keep others from making them too – or at least minimize the errors. Everyone makes newbie mistakes, but helping a new leader understand the “why” of your mistakes will help her with examples to fall back on which will help her anticipate results.

Finally, be available. Regular contact and follow-up is as important as is “just in time” support. Due to the short timeline I had initially, the SPOC and I talked at least once a week. I have mentored many new administrators and try to touch base with them every two to four weeks. Having a regularly scheduled time to meet helps, although I let them know they don’t have to wait until our scheduled meeting if there is an immediate issue.

Whether is it is moving into a new job or facing a new challenge in a current role, quickly becoming effective can be difficult. New leaders facing the crush of new responsibilities can sometimes become overwhelmed, but a new colleague who can help them see the big picture or provide some needed advice can be a lifeline. Sometimes just allowing the new leader talk through an issue will get them over the difficult times. It isn’t just our responsibility as leaders to lead our own teams. We must also help the next generation of leaders who will come after us learn to become leaders, too.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.