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When the novelist Ralph Ellison reached Harlem on July 5, 1936, he stayed at the Black artist-haven YMCA on 135th Street. The next day in the lobby he would meet Langston Hughes. Months later Hughes would introduce Ellison to Richard Wright. Although Ellison wrote about the influences of Hemingway and Dostoevsky in his writing, it was this chance meeting and introduction that were pivotal in Ellison's development as an author.

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I didn't have much of a mentor when I was working as a principal. All first year principals in NYC receive a mentor. Mine was a former middle school principal from Brooklyn. I often felt like he wasted my time but he offered me two great pieces of advice:
1. Always sit at the head of the table during meetings
2. Make sure your Assistant Principal sees you as a superior and not as his daughter.

For the remainder of my early years I kept myself in a cocoon. It was easier to keep my shoulders hunched and my arms crossed then to reach out for a mentor.

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Ellison would later criticize Hughes for giving into the pressures of his white supporters and not being as vocal against the conditions of Black folks as he could have.

When Ellison shared a short story he wrote with Wright, Wright's response was, "This is my story, my style. You have copied my ideas, my words and my structure! You must find your own symbols-you must tap the content of your own unconscious and use it."

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As my principalship was winding down there were two people that I leaned on heavily. They knew my school and gave targeted feedback. I had the discipline conversations, set the academic expectations and let go of staff not fulfilling their job responsibilities. I imitated and then I made it my own.

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I haven't finished reading the biography of Ralph Ellison so I'm not sure how his relationship with his mentors ended. However, by 1941, his time of imitating the writing style of others was diminishing and he was forging his own way still using his mentors as a guide.

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It's been a year since I left the principal job. In the past year I've mentored teachers in New Jersey and GED instructors across the country. I'm often asked what is the biggest challenge moving from a principal to a coach/mentor. My consistent answer, "not telling the instructor what to do."


For the past month I've been working intently with a new instructor. My first visit was on his third day. I kept a running record of what I saw and suggestions for improvement. It was five pages long. He quit after 2 weeks because he didn't feel like he had the ability to do the job. His supervisor convinced him to stay and since then we have been co-planning and co-teaching lessons.

His email to me after the our first class together:
"I'm still amazed at the lesson. Thank you.

I'm taking a page out of your book. I'm already starting to formulate better activities/Warm Ups because I am not as focused on getting through the questions but allowing the students to apply the relevant GED skill to their lives. In essence, I'm starting to think outside of the proverbial box, which I can only assumed is enclosed in yet another box.

Thank you again (I cannot thank you enough) and I look forward to Monday's lesson and continuing to practice the skills you have taught me."

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The art of mentorship is allowing your mentee to develop their own style. Differing in style and opinion but still supporting. This instructor is imitating but I believe he will get to the point of finding his own way.


The original mentor, Confucius said, "It doesn't matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop."


This post is also available at The Education Traveler.

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