"The shift in my role was dramatic," says Aaron Listhaus. "I was no longer an ESL teacher solely responsible for covering my curriculum." Listhaus is describing what he encountered when he first joined a very unusual school, one where he immediately became part of a team teaching an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum in a school where mentoring runs through the entire environment.
The school is International High School (IHS), an alternative public high school located on the campus of La Guardia Community College, in Queens, New York. Today, Listhaus is the chair of the school's coordinating committee, a democratic governing body that decides major policy issues.
He came to IHS from a more traditional setting, a large urban high school rife with fingerpointing, one where the closest thing to a consensus might involve a ban on hats, one where a teacher would probably find a mix of low accountability and a high level of autonomy (read: isolation).
At IHS, Listhaus found himself in a very different world, one characterized by lots of accountability and much less isolation, one where his great gain was "a community of peers, mentors, and students focused on common interdisciplinary themes," as he puts it. Helping young people from foreign countries become acclimated to American culture and fluent in English has fostered a powerful and pervasive mentoring culture within the school's student body, staff, and administration. At IHS, students mentor students, teachers mentor teachers, leaders mentor those moving into leadership positions.
"As a new teacher in this professional community, I was struck by how interdependent we were," recalls Listhaus. As he shared his expertise in ESL methodology in the science class, helping students work through the different procedures in an experiment and understand the background information they were reading, he might also see the art teacher helping other students with observational and drawing skills, while the science teacher outlined color theory.
The school's culture promotes mentoring interactions on many levels, including those dealing with affective and behavioral issues. For example, "While routinely discussing individual students and their difficulties during our planning sessions, teachers began to share their strategies for dealing with common complaints such as tardiness, no homework, and late assignments," says Listhaus.
What might in a more traditional school have been an individual teacher's problem now became a team focus and responsibility. Teachers who might have had difficulty dealing with a particular student now found they had support. Teachers with positive relationships among students were pressed into service as liaisons. "As a new member of this community, I was able to learn new approaches to positively impact the student-teacher relationship," he says.
Learning to Lead
Elected to the position of chair of the school's Coordinating Council by majority faculty vote, Listhaus soon took on administrative responsibilities. From the start, he benefited from the mentoring fabric of the IHS culture in very specific ways. After every coordinating council meeting, he received feedback from the steering committee (the school's management team, comprising administrators and Listhaus) as well as other members of the council.
"We discussed how to monitor the conversation, when to summarize, when to reframe the issue, and how to move the discussion forward to a decision," he says. "Many of our discussions led to a deeper understanding of an issue or enabled us to reframe the discussion in a more productive light." In this mentoring process, Listhaus and his colleagues found themselves naturally involved in an ongoing reflection on the leadership they were supplying to the school, collectively and individually. "What is significant about the support I received is the time and dedication my fellow administrators devoted to providing it," says Listhaus.
Despite the fact that it might have been easier and more efficient to appoint an experienced administrator to the position he took on, Listhaus sees the benefit of choosing a beginner for the job and investing in the mentoring challenge that decision entailed. "In mentoring me, they broadened the pool of leadership to include the ideas and perspective that I brought to the job," he says. "And through the mentoring relationship, they were put in a position to reflect on their own leadership skills."
From Mentee to Mentor
Given the intensive interdependence of the IHS fabric, it was inevitable that Listhaus would quickly become a leadership mentor himself. "This past year, I saw leadership mentoring from the opposite vantage point," he says. An individual who had never served on a faculty committee was elected to serve as its chair, and Listhaus volunteered to mentor her. Inevitably, much of their interaction over subsequent months focused on such basic skills and functions as setting agendas, monitoring discussions, finding strategies for moving a conversation forward, getting buy-in, and establishing goals, deadlines, and shared responsibilities -- addressing the many diverse concerns and voices needed to reach a decision.
But the process also unearthed deeper issues. "As we spoke, I began to reflect on my beliefs about school leadership and whether they were consistent with my actions," says Listhaus. "As a school leader, I wondered, was I just responsible for inventing plans to accomplish a goal or was I really supposed to be asking questions that pushed people's thinking beyond the usual, into new areas?" Was he responsible, Listhaus wondered, for solving problems himself or for helping others solve problems? Where was the line between creating dependency and facilitating independence? In a culture like that of IHS, the mentoring relationship becomes a powerful learning instrument for both mentee and mentor as questions like these arise.
In sum, Listhaus has found at IHS a rich, complex, and colorful learning community that succeeds in providing all of its members opportunities to learn and the support and encouragement needed to make the most of them. "For me, this community provides the chance to continually examine my teaching practices, leadership skills, and beliefs about teaching and learning, and reflect on whether my actions as an educator are consistent with those beliefs," he says.