Are You a Reluctant (or Unwilling) Mentor?

Vol. 9 No. 9


An experienced Head of School that we know recently told us a sad story. Sinking down into his chair at the end of a long day, he sighed. “I think we missed another opportunity today,” he said, beginning to tell us his tale.

A Towering Figure (in Some Ways)

It seems that at his school, there is a “first among equals” in the ranks of their long-tenured teachers—let’s call him “The Professor.” A 25-year veteran, The Professor is a towering figure on campus, to students and faculty alike. He is a renowned lecturer, published author, and a true expert in his field. While he has a reserved manner with students, he clearly delights in their presence and upper level students clamor to get into his honors classes. Among faculty colleagues, he is revered for his keen intellect and remarkable array of teaching and academic achievements.

“Sounds great,” we interjected, somewhat confused. “Where is the problem?”

“Alas,” the Head replied with a rueful smile, “it does sound like an ideal situation, doesn’t it?” Understanding our confusion, he explained further. It turns out that The Professor is limited in certain ways that aren’t always immediately apparent. “He’s not always the best ‘colleague,’” he explained, with an air of practiced understatement.

At their school, “freely socializing knowledge” and “enthusiastic collaboration and collegiality” are two hallmarks of the faculty culture. These, however, are not within The Professor’s natural inclinations or skill sets. “It’s not that he doesn’t agree with these ideas on an intellectual level,” the Head noted. “It’s just that when push comes to shove and it’s time to put these ideas into action, he’s never quite able to get himself to do so—at least not ‘freely and with enthusiasm.’”

The Eager (Potential) Mentee

The Head then shared an example. In The Professor’s department, there is an up-and-coming teacher with great energy, idealism, and potential (let’s call him “The Mentee”). While having already gained several teaching awards in his young career, The Mentee carries himself with an air of engagement, curiosity, and thirst for drinking in all possible knowledge in his field. Having such a master educator as The Professor in his midst has been both blessing and curse to the younger teacher, though. He has sought many times to establish a mentor-mentee working relationship with The Professor. Time and time again, though, his entreaties have been rebuffed, either actively or passively.

A Missed Opportunity, Again

On the day the Head was telling us his story, there had been a further development. During a department meeting earlier that afternoon, The Professor briefly mentioned his latest work in one of his specialty areas. In doing so, he touched on a pedagogical approach of significant interest to others in the department. Hearing this, after the meeting ended, The Mentee gathered up his courage (or really, his hopeful heart) once again and approached The Professor. He inquired if The Professor might have time to meet with him to further discuss the topic—perhaps over coffee, or even as a broader presentation at the next faculty meeting, given that other colleagues were interested in the topic and could use an on the latest and greatest thinking in this area.

Sadly, the response came back a polite but definitive, “No.” The Professor—missing the point almost entirely—didn’t feel that others had a specific need to know about the topic at this time. Deeply disappointed but not surprised, the deflated Mentee went back to his work with a sigh.

Learnings and Reminders: It is tantalizing to have an expert in your midst who—whether by temperament, philosophy, or other limitations—is unable or unwilling to share their expertise broadly with others who are eager for it. A missed opportunity, truly. And one, sadly, that is repeated in schools (and all organizations) all too often. Perhaps the forward-looking question is this: Are there opportunities for us to serve as mentors for others that we are not currently seeing or pursuing? What can we do today to capitalize on even one of these opportunities? What a difference it may make.

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