What I Am Learning As A Mentor

Michael Fellin, Headmaster of Crescent School
After several years of hiatus, I reclaimed my role as an Upper School Mentor in September.
I had let this role go to focus on the “core” responsibilities of the Headmaster’s job: organization management, Board relationships, planning and analysis, programs and personnel, finance and facilities, enrolment and recruitment, fundraising and constituent relations, and institutional reputation – to name a few. But over time I have realized that other responsibilities may be just as important for my own professional growth, cultural awareness and emotional intelligence. One of these is the responsibility of mentoring our students.

I have been reflecting on Parker Palmer’s concept of paradox and the creative tension that can be found within seemingly contradictory features of life. One insight that has emerged for me is the promise of paradox to elicit new ways of thinking, doing, and being in community. As the framework for our mentorship time together, I introduced Palmer’s six paradoxes of the classroom to my mentees:
  1. The space will be bounded and open – staying within the bounds of a subject yet providing the openness of conversation.
  2. The space will be hospitable and charged – ensuring a safe place where all can participate yet not so safe so as to limit venturing outside of our comfort zones.
  3. The space will invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group – encouraging the voice of each person to be heard in order to find a collective voice of the group.
  4. The space will honor the “little” stories of the individual and the “big” stories of the school – eliciting personal experiences and connecting them to the larger school stories and events.
  5. The space will support solitude and surround it with the resources of community – finding time to chill, be still, and connect with other mentor groups.
  6. The space will welcome both silence and speech – allowing opportunities to reflect quietly as well as to put our ideas into words so we can understand and share them further.
mentor group
Over the past few weeks, I completed one-on-one check-ins with my mentees about their progress on their goals and the health of our mentor group. These individual conversations and others we have had as a group have reminded me of another paradox as mentor: I am receiving as much from as I am giving to these amazing young men.

Is there anything more core to the role of Headmaster than to mentor students – both as instructor and learner? The conventional answer to this question may not be found from an executive coach, in any professional advisory, or in the meta-analysis of effective school leadership. But I am certain that this time with students – to hear and encourage their voice, to give and receive feedback, to meet as a group and sit one-on-one, to share and listen to multiple perspectives – has been one of my greatest joys and lasting impacts this year.

The promise of paradox is often found when we least expect human transformation and personal growth. As Headmaster, championing student voice – in small mentor groups, across divisions, and in large-scale school surveys – has never been more important. Often what we can discover as adults is that students hold the capacity to reflect to us what is most important but often forgotten in life and in school.

Veritate Stamus et Crescimus.

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