Simon Says…

The Making of a Mentorship

The Making of a Mentorship

(Head of School Simon Holzapfel is currently on a three-week tour of Asia and has invited Darrow teacher and mentor Michael Glovsky to be the guest blogger for Simon Says…)

by Michael Glovsky

Glovsky Michael_6168 082416 loNow in my fifth year at Darrow, I am a dedicated member of the Academic Mentorship Program. Mentorship is an often misunderstood area of our academic program; some people think it’s just for help on homework, others think it’s only helpful for those struggling academically. But when mentoring is done well, it is so much more.

Inspired by poet Taylor Mali’s well known work, “What Teachers Make”, I’d love to take a moment to channel my inner Mali and describe for you just what mentors are capable of making.

What do mentors make?

Mentors make a connection. You meet a student in their first session. Maybe you’ve worked with them somewhere before, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you now have an opportunity to develop a close, long-lasting relationship. It is slow at first; maybe they aren’t very talkative. Maybe they think they have “nothing to work on.” But very, very gradually you start to chip away. In microscopic, barely-registering moments, you gain their trust. It starts with a single math problem, or a homework plan, or how you both love Led Zeppelin. (C’mon, who doesn’t?) After that, they are slightly less opposed to reviewing their upcoming homework assignments with you. Perhaps they even allow you to look through the feedback they received on a recent paper, and together you plan how they will redraft.

Mentors make a safe space. You now have a good relationship with this student. They come to you even when they aren’t scheduled. They bring problems to you, seek your advice. So now what can you make? An impact.

Mentors make an impact:

  • We make topics understandable.
  • We make feedback clearer.
  • We make daunting, nebulous assignments feel doable.
  • We make kids who worry they can’t do anything, feel they can do everything.

So what do mentors really make? We make a difference.

Putting Students at the Center

I devoted the first half of this week to joining a team of nine other New York independent school teachers and administrators doing the best sort of professional development I know—an accreditation at New York City’s Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), a pre-K through 12 Progressive school. We arrived Sunday afternoon and spent all our waking hours sitting in classes and talking to students, parents, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees in order to see if the school’s self-study matched what we were observing. (Darrow went through a similar process in 2014, receiving its reaccreditation from the New York State Association of Independent Schools.)

I drew strength from spending hours in deep observation and conversation at a school that lives its mission to the fullest, from seeing how much Progressive education creates wonder and curiosity in students, and from meeting teachers who are as alive with possibility and energy as their pupils. Independent schools that commit to this sort of self-examination and peer scrutiny deserve recognition and support for competing against a free option, and for literally being worth it to families of every socioeconomic class, all of whom have to sacrifice something to be there.

I write this as someone who attended a great public elementary school and a survived a huge public high school without any lasting trauma. There is something different going on here than I experienced. That something is a truly human-centered design for learning, one that puts students at the center of the experience.


Enterprise as a Mirror of America

When I mention to people that I believe schools need to work to make their graduates more enterprising, I get two very different reactions: wrinkled noses or “hell yes!”

For half of my barely random sample, the word “enterprising” connotes greed, the worst of capitalism, the valuing of profit above all else. The other half of my sample, usually business people, say, “Of course we want our young people to be enterprising.” They don’t hold negative connotations of the word, apprehending instead its more positive associations, which reinforce their values.

Merriam-Webster provides what I believe are more precise definitions of the word enterprising: “marked by an independent energetic spirit and by readiness to act,” and, “bold and energetic in trying or experimenting.”

It occurs to me that the polarized reactions I receive when using this word are characteristic of the deep divisions in this 21st century America. People seeing the exact same word apply starkly contrasting meanings to it.

So I want to reclaim “enterprising” and restore its original meaning, to free it of the political baggage of our day so that young people, whose well being depends on having an independent energetic spirit and readiness to act, can get on with their experimenting.

Our future depends on it.

A Fair and Balanced Time?

I must confess that leading a school in a time of political turmoil and unpredictability isn’t easy. Headlines splash over the gunnels of my desk almost every day, making each step slippery. Making sense of them all takes a lot of work because I am doing so both for myself and for others.

And yet, when I step away from my screens and just spend time with students, I see something refreshing and surprising: they are paying attention but are also focused on their lives further down the road. Many of them are looking past the next four years, past electoral politics in general, and seeking to connect with other people, to build a life of goodness, and to simply understand themselves.

We all should be so lucky.

One Resolution to Rule Them All

One of the people I most admire in the world, and most want to meet in person one day, is Pema Chodron. She’s a Buddhist monk, author, and speaker. She’s also very funny. She has a way with words rare among people who study ancient texts and wisdom, in that she makes old wisdoms relatable to current events. Her words inspire me and give me strength on a weekly basis.

From her I’ve got my resolution for this year: Practice staying with your discomforts, whatever they may be, and relax into them. Don’t run, or numb, or turn away as you encounter them.

What you find there is what you actually need.

Happy Listening: My Top 5 Podcasts of 2016

I love to learn and to find evermore podcasts that keep me laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes scratching my head, but always learning. Happy Holidays and happy listening. I hope you enjoy some of these favorites from the past year:

Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York are roughly the same size. They compete for the same students. Both have long traditions of academic excellence. But one of those schools is trying hard to close the gap between rich and poor in American society—and paying a high price for its effort. The other is making that problem worse—and reaping rewards as a result.

NPR’s How I Built This: Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia:
A chance encounter with a stranger gave Joe Gebbia an idea to help pay his rent. That idea turned into Airbnb — a company that now has more rooms than the biggest hotel chain in the world.

Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders: Entrepreneurship Strengthens a Nation 
Retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, creator of the “Lean LaunchPad” methodology for startups, discusses Silicon Valley’s roots as the epicenter of electronic warfare in the mid-20th century and how the region’s innovation ecosystem formed.

Harvard Business Review IdeaCast 525: How Focusing on Content Leads the Media Astray
Bharat Anand, author of The Content Trap and professor at Harvard Business School, talks about the strategic challenges facing digital businesses, and explains how he and his colleagues wrestled with them when designing HBX, the school’s online learning platform.

WNYC/Freakonomics Radio: Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten
We Americans may love our democracy, at least in theory, but at the moment our feelings toward the federal government lie somewhere between disdain and hatred. Which electoral and political ideas should be killed off to make way for a saner system?

Bonus episode:

WNYC/Freakonomics Radio: The Longest Long Shot   
When the uncelebrated Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League, it wasn’t just the biggest underdog story in recent history. It was a sign of changing economics — and that other impossible, wonderful events might be lurking just around the corner.

Safety First

It occurred to me this week that we as a nation are confused and unclear about the rules relating to violent speech in our society. At what point is an offhand remark or figure of speech heard as something more menacing? Could an impulsively composed social media comment be perceived as discriminatory and threatening? When might a well-intentioned joke become an ugly slur, or even hate speech?

I don’t have to think about violence much: I’m a tall man, surrounded by people who mostly look like me, in an occupation that is quite safe. However, considering the diverse circumstances of students around the world today—and the equally diverse environments in which they are learning—my experience of safety puts me in the minority. I’m increasingly thankful for this safety, as violent deeds and words seem to be ascendant these days. And the lines that should delineate them are becoming blurred with equal frequency.

This matters in several ways, some self-evident and some less so. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: being subject to verbal violence and the consequent fear for one’s safety—at home, at school, at work, or in one’s neighborhood—is uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst. And the ramifications related to learning are sizable. Simply put, it’s hard to learn anything when you fear for your very well-being. The energy required to learn is siphoned off into worry, anxiety, and apprehension. Immediate survival trumps learning new information about calculus or chemistry any day of the week.

The proposition that fearing for one’s personal safety impairs the ability to learn is weak fodder for debate. But I would add that there is an economic argument for getting clear about violent language. Our nation’s economic well-being, no less than our psychic well-being, is at stake.

In the long term, economic growth relies on increasing worker productivity. Hamper people from developing their full potential and you limit achievement. Safe boundaries are imperative if we are to realize the growth of human capital that necessarily precedes economic prosperity. If a group of educators and economists were to hammer out an estimate on that cost, I’d bet it would run to the billions of dollars each year.

Violent speech is harmful all across the entire educational and economic landscape, whether it takes place in the classroom, the playing field, the factory floor, or the office break room. Addressing it requires clear, definitive, and enforceable standards of behavior, and those of us who claim to be the leaders of others should be held accountable for defining and upholding those boundaries.

As we enter the season of thankfulness and giving, consider a gift to your fellow people: stand up for nonviolent speech and give the gift of less fear. Also, give the gift of courage to others who are in fear.

Be an ally.