Urban Superintendents: Mentoring Program Helps Train New Colleagues

An intense program yields excellent results -- and lasting friendships.

An intense program yields excellent results -- and lasting friendships.

When Janis Duran first agreed to serve as a mentor for the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program, she expected to coach and advise her student mentee. But over the course of the intensive six-month internship, she found that her student, Hillary Johnson, also became her teacher.

"I knew it would be a great experience," recalls Duran, superintendent of the San Lorenzo Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area. "But the reality far exceeded my expectations." Being a mentor helped put new life into her job and helped her see the changes the district was going through from a fresh perspective.

Johnson arrived in San Lorenzo for her six-month internship in July of 1998 at a time of tremendous change in the district. As part of a districtwide reconfiguration, Duran and her staff were preparing to open two elementary schools and three middle schools. School boundaries had changed and five sites were under extensive construction. Dozens of new teachers were being hired to staff both the new schools as well as the additional classrooms opening up as a result of the state's initiative to reduce class size.

For the next ten weeks, Johnson shadowed Duran, attending school board meetings, strategy sessions, and visiting school sites. The program only calls for six weeks of shadowing, but, says Johnson, "It was such an amazing period and I was learning so much that we extended the time."

The value of this up-close look at the day-to-day responsibilities of the superintendent are almost impossible to convey, say students who've participated in the program. They describe the internship as "life changing," "cutting edge," and "the best in the world." The internship brings to life the educational theory they studied during the program's twelve months of coursework. It makes the challenges and issues faced by superintendents real in a way that lectures, interviews, even practical experience as a teacher or principal cannot.

But, as is often the case, the person whose efforts are being scrutinized also benefits tremendously from the experience.

"Every day for six months Hillary was asking questions," says Duran, recalling how the two would talk during car rides after meetings, over a quick bite of lunch, at the end of a long board or staff meeting. Although the purpose of the many debriefings was to give Johnson insight into her decision-making process, Duran says she benefited tremendously from the experience.

"I was not her boss and she was not my employee. That's where I got the most benefit," says Duran. "Hillary was focused on sharing her thoughts and ideas, not on whether or not I was going to be mad later about something she had said." Her intern shared a lot of new research, new ideas, and new studies, and Duran took advantage of all of it.

Back to School

Duran isn't the only superintendent over the years to mine this newfound resource, says Program Coordinator Linda Wing.

"We didn't design the program with the purpose of benefiting superintendent learning," says Wing, "but all of the superintendents have said the program is very developmental for them -- that it opens their eyes to their own practices."

One reason both students and teachers gain so much from the experience is the months of preparation work leading up to the internship. For students, the program begins with twelve intense months of study during which time they are completing two full years of coursework on administration, planning, and policy. The internship, which begins in the summer of the program's second year, provides these aspiring superintendents with the opportunity to put into practice the theory they explored during their first year.

Students begin their stay in the host district by shadowing their superintendent-mentor for six to eight weeks. "They're in intense learning mode," explains Wing. Students attend every staff meeting, every board meeting, every school or district event with the superintendent. They then participate in regular debriefing sessions, during which time they have the opportunity to query their mentor on issues that were discussed and decisions that were made.

One of the most powerful components of the program for both the mentor and the mentee is the "second-guess" memos written by students throughout the course of their internship. Through these briefs, students are encouraged to re-examine critical decisions made by the superintendent, and then to make recommendations based on that analysis. It's a way for the aspiring superintendent to mimic the thought process of his or her mentor -- and it provides the superintendents with new insight into critical issues.

Because students have unparalleled access to their mentors during the internship, great care is taken before the start of the program to ensure that superintendents understand their role as mentor and to prepare district staff and school board members for the students' arrival.

"I spent a lot of time talking to board members and staff about Hillary's role during the internship," explains Duran. "I especially wanted to make sure that my staff understood that Hillary wasn't coming to take their jobs and that they knew how her work would fit into the work we were doing in the district," she adds.

Duran and other superintendent-mentors participate in two seminars at Harvard, one in June, before the start of the internship, and one halfway through the six-month program. The June seminar is designed to ensure that superintendents head back home to their districts with a deep understanding of what mentoring is all about. They attend lectures on mentoring by members of the Harvard Business School faculty, meet with colleagues to discuss potential challenges during the internship, and spend time with the students in the program to ensure a fuller understanding of their needs.

In the fall, participating superintendents head back to Harvard for a second seminar, designed to provide them with the opportunity to reflect on the internship and their role as mentor.

"It was an invaluable time," says Duran. "As superintendents we don't often have the opportunity to reflect and meet with colleagues from all over the country."

The Perfect Fit

As with any mentoring program, one key to the success of the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program is the care that's taken when matching students with their mentors.

Throughout the months of coursework, Program Director Robert Peterkin, Ph.D., and Associate Director Wing spend many, many hours with each of the students. They read their journals, talk to their professors, and develop a deep understanding for the strengths and weaknesses of each student.

That knowledge is critical to the successful pairing with mentors during the second phase of the program. Students are typically given a couple of different choices in mentors and then have the opportunity to learn more about each school district and superintendent before making their final decision.

Almost immediately after hearing about Superintendent Duran and San Lorenzo, Johnson set to work to find out everything she could about the district and its top administrator. She visited the district Web site and obtained copies of newsletters, speeches, and district materials. "From that a picture started to emerge of Janis and San Lorenzo," says Johnson, and she was ready to take the next step -- a three-day site visit. "Once we met we knew it would work for both of us," says Johnson. "It's such an intense relationship that there has to be that connection, that click, that chemistry."

Johnson, who is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on professional development, believes the Harvard program does an excellent job of balancing the needs of a formal program, while still recognizing the importance of the personal bonding that happens in informal mentoring relationships.

"The mentoring went beyond just learning about the San Lorenzo School District," she adds. "We talked about life decisions, about balancing marriage and children and families with work." Far from being side issues, says Johnson, these are in fact central to career success for anyone.

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

This article originally published on 9/1/1999

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