It was a great pleasure to exchange an email or two this week with the man who did more than any other to consolidate in me a sense of vocation to be a school leader.

His name is Adrian Palmer and he was the Head of Senior School at St. Andrew’s, Turi for 8 years finishing in 2014. I spent two years as his Deputy in 2011-13 but perhaps it is only recently that I have begun to realise how influential his mentorship during that time was. Mentoring is a much misunderstood concept.

I myself provide a good example of this: having decided to take mentoring as my theme this week I (like the earnest English teacher I am at heart) researched the etymology of the word. Of course, it has none! Mentor is the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey whom Odysseus appointed, before he departed for the Trojan War, to look after his son Telemachus.

More interestingly, the goddess Athena then took the form of Mentor when she visited Telemachus, allowing her to get close to him and capitalize on the long-standing trust in Telemachus’ relationship with Mentor to guide, protect, counsel and encourage him. When I last worked in the UK, mentoring very much in vogue. In fact, as Assistant Headteacher in my last school there, I was responsible for appointing and overseeing a team of mentors from the school’s teaching staff to work 1:1 with key students.

The goal, of course, was to try to ensure that the students got the best grades possible, which is fair enough (though I think we have established by now that I believe there is a lot more to a good education than merely that) but the means by which we went about it were in retrospect rather facile and shallow, mainly being to do with simple target setting and review. Three elements in the relationship between Athena (Mentor) and Telemachus strike me as interesting:

  • The first is the importance of trust. Athena took Mentor’s form so that she would immediately have Telemachus’ trust without which there is every chance that her wise counsel, guidance and encouragement may have been ignored partially or in toto.
  •  The second, is the intervention of the divine. There is something a little mystical about the process of mentorship; it is not always something that one can actually observe as a process, not least because the progress of the mentee can be incremental or erratic. And the best mentorship depends on there being genuine wisdom at play, and what better wisdom than divine wisdom? Real mentorship (and true wisdom) is about the big stuff- about values and principles; it’s not just about changing someone in the head, but in the heart and soul as well- this is where it differs so sharply from coaching.
  • And finally, I had not considered, until preparing this piece, the importance of the idea of protection in mentoring. The best the mentors feel a genuine affection for their charges. It is this that gives them the motivation to sacrifice the time and to summon the patience that is required to properly mentor someone. The quickest way to teach someone is to give him or her instructions (I am dismayed to see the word “instruction” is currently in vogue in US education) but how deep, lasting and transferable will that learning be? Gently guiding someone towards wisdom and to develop a reliable moral compass, really mentoring someone, takes time and during that journey the mentor must protect his protégé, not smoothing out the waves, but ensuring the ship stays afloat, until such time as the apprentice is ready to take the tiller herself. Mentoring is:
  • Answering a question with a question
  • Allowing someone to make mistakes
  • Encouraging honest reflection
  • Helping someone to see the bigger picture
  • Developing foresight
  • Shaping values
  • Modelling
  • Forming personal qualities Mentoring requires:
  • Patience
  • Forgiveness
  • Loyalty
  • Affection
  • Time You know by now the importance I attach to the human and interpersonal aspects of our work to develop young people.

If we can try to adopt at least some of the approaches of a true mentor in our interactions with our youngsters I think there is every chance we will end up being better teachers and, dare I say it, parents.