Electronic Mentoring

Superintendent Stephen F. Day had some timely advice for second-year high school principal Bonnie Hauber as the first day of school approached two years ago:

“Don’t be surprised that you are totally whipped after the day…. My guess is you will be flying until about 3 in the morning just absorbing all of the emotional and subconscious information. Remedy: Have two glasses of Shiraz and go to bed.”

Unusual counsel, perhaps, from a superintendent to a principal to start a new school year. But the message—sent by e-mail from Day’s office in Portville, N.Y., in the state’s southwest corner to Hauber at Maine-Endwell High School 170 miles away—was the beginning of a journey that has helped lead three New York administrators to a deeper understanding of themselves, their jobs and their relationships with their colleagues, both near and far.

Day, Hauber and James R. Thompson, principal of Wolcott Street Elementary School in the village of LeRoy near Rochester, have established an electronic mentoring relationship that has now entered its third year. The three have been together in the same room only twice, but through constant e-mailing—each writes the others at least four times a week during the school year—they now refer to each other not only as trusted confidantes but, in Hauber’s words, as “dear friends.”

They believe they have developed a method of networking and mentoring that can be a model for school administrators across the country, where the idea of mentoring for administrators has fallen far behind that of mentoring for teachers.

Candid Discussions
The three call their approach a “journaling triad.” Day came up with the idea after the three met at an administrators’ conference at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., in the summer of 2001. He and Hauber began corresponding that August and later that month invited Thompson to join.

From the start, the e-mails were frank.

“Observation,” Hauber wrote to Day in one of the first messages in August 2001. “I’m becoming more aware of how much time I spend in managing the building and tending to the paperwork that constantly lands on my desk and how little time I spend on reflection. I’m not planning properly because I’m not reflecting properly! You seem to have a much better grip on this problem.”

Hauber may have been reluctant to acknowledge that shortcoming to colleagues in her own school district. But because the triad cuts across district boundaries and job descriptions, the three administrators have the freedom to be open and frank with one another.

“We’re all in different districts and different positions and whatever we say cannot be evaluated other than how we evaluate each other,” Day said during a recent afternoon of face-to-face interviews with all three participants. “It’s a safe environment to get some really critical feedback.”

“There are many, many gray areas in what we do, and at those times you want to analyze them with someone whose opinions you trust,” Hauber agreed.

A Rare Opportunity
When the triad started two years ago, she was beginning her second year as a suburban high school principal in the south-central part of the state after working as an assistant principal. Day was starting his eighth month as a superintendent in a rural, 1,200-student district near Jamestown, N.Y. Thompson was in his 14th year as principal of an elementary school in LeRoy, which he calls “a Mayberry small town” about 30 miles southwest of Rochester.

None of those districts—and few nationally—have formal mentoring programs for administrators. Thompson, who writes and lectures on administrative mentoring, says that is a glaring omission, particularly since so many new and inexperienced administrators are entering the field as those in the Baby Boom Generation retire.

“We’re proud to talk about our mentoring program for new teachers because the power of mentoring to help accelerate the growth curve and help somebody with survival skills with the job is beyond reproach,” he says. “Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We don’t have those formal mentoring programs for novice administrators.”

Day agrees. “I think networking among professionals is probably one of the most important things we don’t do, and if you don’t do it it’s a disservice to your job and the people you work with.”

Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, says the development of leaders has been generally neglected throughout the educational community.

“We assume that if somebody is a pretty good teacher then they’ll be a competent administrator,” he says. “But almost always they’re inadequately prepared when they step into the job.”

The kind of relationship the New York triad has forged can be a boon to school leaders who often have no one to turn to for frank advice, Sparks says. “Sometimes people in those roles cannot admit vulnerability. Having someone to whom you can just say, ‘I don’t know,’ is a huge gift.”

Terry Orr, an associate professor in educational leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-director of the school’s Superintendent’s Leadership Institute, agrees. “The expectation is that you already know everything,” she says. “To seek a learning approach can be seen as a weakness.”

Orr advises administrators to keep journals and to seek out individual mentors. To some extent, the New York triad combines those two approaches.

“It’s an excellent tool for reflection,” she says of the journal approach. “You need to find ways to build in deep reflection in your practice.”

Rhythm and Tone
Day’s initial idea was to establish a framework for the communications based on the work of William Purkey and Helen Stanley in their 1991 book, Invitational Teaching, Learning and Living. Those authors analyzed organizations through categories such as people, places, policies, programs and processes. Day suggested organizing the triad’s correspondence by labeling each thought within the e-mails using those categories.

The administrators followed those guidelines briefly, but the correspondence soon established its own rhythm and tone. Sometimes the messages are short and to the point, seeking practical advice on issues from personnel decisions to student discipline to testing and other state mandates. Other times they are lengthier reflections on education and leadership. On other occasions, especially for the two principals, who are constantly besieged by the crises of the moment, they are as much about personal encouragement and support as practical advice.

“We’re trying to eat that 900-pound gorilla of the moment, you know?” Thompson says. “So we assure each other: ‘One bite at a time.’”

In one early exchange, Thompson wrote about the challenge of getting students to embrace the school’s dress code. Day responded with a supportive analysis of the issue, followed by a quick disclaimer:

“I have always taken the view that the school is a place of learning, and in order to learn students need few distractions. Male or female personal attributes (like that?) which stimulate hormonal reactions probably create a distraction to learning at the left side of the brain. Since 80 percent of all high school learning is presented in that form I would say that it is a distraction. I will leave it up to you to explain that to a 15-year-old cheerleader who is dating the captain of the football team.”

Small Size
Day says three participants appear to be the ideal number for the electronic mentoring approach.

“Three is important because if it was any bigger there would be a tendency to drop out and not worry about it,” he says. “When there’s three of you there’s more of a tendency to stay with it and make it work because you’re an important cog in the triad. You don’t want to be the one to drop the ball. You want to keep it going and add to the discussion.”

Day often has more time to reflect than the building principals. He often writes longer, more philosophical entries that could just as well be reflections in a personal diary. Many of those entries come in 15-minute bursts when he first walks into his office at about 7 a.m.

“Passion,” he wrote in one message. “Sometimes as professionals and leaders of the educational community we forget that it is really OK to have and display our passion. I am speaking in regards to our passion for education, for the students we are responsible for, and I guess, for life in general….

“ I displayed a passionate ‘St. Crispin’s Day Moment’ when my technology person stated that he was already working too many hours this summer that he was not getting paid for. I quickly moved to anger and past it to a true emotional connection to the difference between the ‘blue collar’ approach to education and that of the professional. The professional is not one who punches the clock and walks out of work at 3 p.m. My point was that at the level of discussion we were at in terms of setting the timetable for the implementation of new technology, there was no room for a discussion of ‘how much is this costing me or burdening my lifestyle.’ I think we always have to keep in mind our belief and status in terms of those we work with.”

Discussing approaches to personnel issues—without ever mentioning names—has been one of the most helpful aspects of the triad for Day. Motivating employees is a big topic among the three. In one uncharacteristically short e-mail, Day simply forwarded a pertinent comment he had come across recently:

“The longer I live the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. Author: Charles Swindoll.”

All three administrators say a positive attitude toward the correspondence is what keeps it helpful. With all of the problems swirling around them in their schools and districts, the electronic messages could have become simply an opportunity to let off steam.

“The approach is the glass is half full,” Day says. “It’s never a negative time for me.”

Or, as Thompson puts it: “No Willy Loman stuff here…. There’s a difference between sharing war stories and sharing craft knowledge. Well, we do a little sharing of war stories, but I’d say most of it is craft knowledge.”

A few exchanges, though, allow the correspondents to let their frustrations show:

Thompson: “Like prickly heat, several requests for change of teachers have hit this afternoon. One may be legit … one is a real pain-in-the-butt kinda parent that would think that Mother Teresa was too stern with their child; one needs more info before I can make up my mind.”

Day: “Yesterday was spent with a few meetings with some parents who have only one goal: ‘Let’s see if we can create some negative energy today.’ I have always dealt with those people with kindness, patience and facts. They are landmines waiting to go off. I think that they are very needy people who ‘drain’ us for our positive energy. We give, of course, and I think that we have to know when that is happening. After those kinds of meetings I run out and breathe in some sunshine ….”

Enduring Vibes
In the end, the administrators say it is the positive energy that the correspondence generates that keeps it going. And they say there’s no end in sight. After more than two years, Thompson says opening the e-mails from Day and Hauber still acts as an “oasis” in his day.

“He knows exactly what I’m going through; she knows exactly what I’m going through,” he says. “Because they’ve gone through it.”

Hauber agrees.

“The support we provide for each other can’t be underestimated,” she says. “When we’re going through a problem and just need a friend to talk to we know that whatever we’re sharing is safe and sacred, and we hold each other up.”

Or, as Day puts it, “We’re dedicated to our profession and now I think we’re dedicated to each other.”

Paul Riede is an education writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com