Saturday, September 7, 2013

Inspiration Personified -- The Lessons of my Mentor

Typically on Saturday mornings I aim to join #satchat on Twitter, but my family life intercedes and instead I catch the end of the discussion.  Nothing being new about this process, I caught the tail end of #satchat and discovered a post by @pammoran about the meaningful contributions of her mentor.  This is a beautifully articulated piece; I encourage you to read it.  It got me thinking about the influence of my own mentor and inspired me to put those thoughts down in writing.

My mentor, who in his career was an itinerant teacher for the blind, a supervisor of special education, a pupil personal director, and assistant superintendent, is the type of human being who inspires you, an individual you would aspire to emulate.   The first attribute that struck me when I met him was his ability to listen.  He is a powerful listener who has the ability to reflect thought, and the emotions behind those thoughts, and redirect his communications back to you to sharpen your own mind.   Ironically, as a psychologist, this ability is a tenet of my training, but here was an individual who possessed this ability naturally, and intrinsically understood the importance of listening, who instead was training me

He listened to parents in the most difficult circumstances during contentious special education meetings, framed exactly where they were coming from, and without having yet addressed the solutions to their concerns, gained their trust.  One of the primary reasons for this, other than his extraordinary listening ability, was his deep capacity for empathy.  My mentor knew instinctively how to step into another’s shoes and view the world from another’s point of view.  He cared deeply for every member of the community, and wanted everyone who lived there to have a strong bond with their families, the school district, and institutions within the community.  He actively worked to achieve this goal.  If people were struggling, he felt it, and he took active solutions to alleviate their suffering.  I may be the fortunate beneficiary of this empathy, as he hired me, two crisis guidance counselors and a social worker after it was determined the district needed more social services to assist families.  He started a community charity that was meant to assist families during difficult times.  He was active during the holiday season, making sure every child and family in the community would have what they needed.  This empathy carried over into everything he did, and filtered into our school district, where families knew that their child would be well cared for.

My mentor was one who valued the whole child, and was always active in making certain our community did as well.  He was a champion of the arts and always put aside time and resources to bring the arts to our community, particularly to our children.  He started an artist in residency program that brought in writers, visual artists, and musicians who would spend time with our kids teaching lessons from their careers.  He championed our local arts world, including actively supporting our strong music program.  He was a leading member of an educational foundation to bring leading speakers from their fields to kids to help mentor them.  He also left us with the best public arts display I’ve seen at a high school, a public display of Walter Baum impressionist paintings that had been gathering dust in closets or offices of administrators, that stand side by side with student art displays. 

In addition to possessing these amazing human bonding and relationship building qualities, he had the innate ability to plan.   He taught me to never act impulsively, but to take time and reflect, always thinking about the best direction in which to take action.  This meant that every phone call, email and correspondence that was laced with emotion did not need to be immediately addressed.  He taught me to take time to reflect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others, and use that time to plan a response taking those into consideration.  He taught me that when you start a building or a community initiative to take time to build capacity, gather resources and ideas, include others, and be thorough in your preparation.  This is why he was such an outstanding member of my dissertation committee; he had me be prepared, although it was he who asked the toughest questions at my defense! 

My mentor has now retired, however his teachings are never far from my thoughts.  I like to think he’s always there guiding my decisions – in the back of my mind he’s telling me, “Reflect, Be Patient, Plan, Be Empathetic.”  When I run into tough times, he always is there as a resource, and when I’m lost for a course of action, I often think back to what he would do, which helps me steer my path.  There is no greater value than one of a good mentor.  If you have the fortune to have a mentor that has these qualities, your work will be enriched, as will that of those around you.  Thank you so much, Jim.