Mentorship Helps Educators Find Their Path and Purpose
For educators, mentorship fuels career growth, helps build confidence, and develops deep and meaningful friendships.
In late April, Lagra Newman (Los Angeles ’05) celebrated an important milestone: the 10th anniversary of her school, Purpose Preparatory Academy Charter School in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s an accomplishment that Newman could only dream of over a decade ago when she first described her vision of opening “the best school in Tennessee” to the woman who would eventually become her mentor and friend.
Newman first met Juliana Worrell (New Jersey ’04) in 2012 while attending Columbia University’s Summer Principals Academy in New York. While she was looking over the cohort list for the program, Newman recognized Worrell’s name—in fact, she had witnessed Worrell’s impactful work leading North Star Academy Charter School of Newark on a prior school visit. Newman knew she had to connect with Worrell personally.
“Everything about the way in which students interacted in that space was so empowering and liberating,” Newman said. “I knew that I wanted to replicate that excellence in the work of Purpose Prep.” So she took a chance and invited Worrell to lunch to learn more about her leadership story at North Star, as well as share the vision she had for her own school in Nashville.
It was the start of a mentorship that would prove instrumental in helping Newman become the school leader she always dreamed of—especially in the moments of doubt and uncertainty when it came time for Newman to launch Purpose Prep.
Mentorship is a powerful force in education and research shows that mentor relationships among educators can indelibly shape them and the school communities they serve. Some mentorships, like Newman and Worrell’s, occur organically—an educator may seek out the advice of a peer with longer tenure or shadow a senior colleague who holds a position that they aspire to reach one day. Others happen through specialized mentorship programs arranged by districts or organizations like Teach For America.
TFA's Greater New Orleans and Idaho regions, for example, offer mentorship programs in which veteran educators are paired with beginner teachers. Regardless of how they begin, mentorships between educators of different generations and tenures can provide benefits for mentors and mentees that go far beyond professional development. In addition to career growth, mentorships can lead to meaningful friendships, instill educators with greater confidence, and add meaning to educators' work.
Pursuing a New Career Path, Finding a Mentor in the Process
When they met at Columbia University’s Summer Principals Academy, Newman asked Worrell if she could come experience the first few weeks of the new school year at North Star. A few weeks of shadowing eventually turned into several months of Newman traveling back and forth between Tennessee and New Jersey, all so that she could witness Worrell’s work at North Star and learn how to lead a school from her example. In particular, Newman wanted to see how Worrell navigated each milestone of the school year: the first days of school, teacher development week, the first parent-teacher conference, and more. “I was among giants and I wanted to learn and grow and take in as much as I could,” Newman said.
But when the time came for Newman to return to Nashville to start her school, she faltered. She wanted more time to learn from Worrell’s leadership at North Star. “I told Juliana, ‘I'm not ready to open up Purpose. In fact, I think I should postpone it,’” Newman recalled. She even offered to work for Worrell as a member of the North Star team, for any position that was open.
“Selfishly, I would have loved for Lagra to stay at my school,” Worrell said. But she knew Newman was ready and told her: “You must go back to Nashville and you must found this school because this is your calling.”
“I think that when you're doing something as bold and audacious as founding a school, you have moments where you start to doubt if you can do this,” Newman said. But in that moment of insecurity, Worrell stepped up to give Newman the encouragement she needed to pursue her dream of opening one of the best schools in the state. And Newman is doing just that: In 2017, Purpose Prep earned the recognition of being ranked within the top 5 percent of Tennessee schools for academic performance.
Like Newman, Brian Duplantier (Greater New Orleans ’18) has grown as a leader and educator thanks to the guidance and support of his mentor, Eileen Bunton (South Louisiana ’97), a middle school principal at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans.
Duplantier first met Bunton during his second year of City Year, an AmeriCorps program that places participants in underserved public schools to serve as tutors, mentors, and other support roles. Duplantier was working as a team leader for City Year, helping to coach and support first-year members of the program, when the school had an unexpected vacancy for the special education math teacher role.
Duplantier stepped up to support the special education math teacher’s students while the position was vacant. Bunton says she immediately saw Duplantier’s promise as a leader. “He's always willing to just take on whatever is needed and with such joy and spirit and initiative,” Bunton said.
When Duplantier’s commitment with City Year was wrapping up, Bunton encouraged Duplantier to apply for Teach For America and select New Orleans as his first choice, so that she could keep him at her school. The following school year, after joining TFA, Duplantier was officially hired for the special education math teacher position. He has continued to lead in that role ever since.
“I saw real joy in his teaching and knew that with the support of Green and with the support of TFA, he would become a really great teacher, which he has,” Bunton said.
She has continued to personally encourage Duplantier over the years. When Duplantier received his master’s degree in reading intervention, Bunton tapped him to join the school’s new reading intervention program. And when the school’s director asked Duplantier to act as the summer school director, Bunton persuaded him to take the role.
“My natural inclination is to be anxious about it and I talk myself down. But from Eileen, it's always like, ‘Oh, no, you'll be fine, you'll be great, you'll have a good time.’ And, you know, it ended up working out well,” Duplantier said. “Whether I'm ready or not, the confidence that I get from Eileen and other staff members just to go and do it is always a good feeling.”
Today, Duplantier credits a lot of his career growth and confidence as an educator to Bunton’s mentorship and continued belief in him to succeed.
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Programs That Create Bonds Between New and Veteran Educators
More than half of all states in the U.S. require some type of induction and mentoring support for new teachers. As a result, a growing number of schools, districts, and organizations across the nation have created new teacher mentorship programs.
These programs typically pair a veteran educator with a first- or second-year teacher. The new teacher receives the benefits of professional support and guidance, while the veteran teacher is able to grow as a supportive leader who coaches junior teachers through the professional and emotional development of becoming more experienced teachers.
Teach For America Greater New Orleans founded its Alumni Coaching Fellowship in the 2020-21 school year as a means for alumni and other experienced teachers to access instructional coaching and leadership development opportunities.
Jennifer Wilson, a veteran English language learner teacher at the Success at Thurgood Marshall charter school in New Orleans, has mentored TFA corps members through the program, including Marianna Quezada (Greater New Orleans ’21), who transitioned out of a career in tech to seek more emotionally rewarding work in education. She credits Wilson with teaching her a great deal through mentorship and coaching.
“Sometimes once a week, sometimes every other week, she'll come in and observe me and then give me feedback on my lesson and on what I've been doing,” Quezada said. “She’s definitely boosted my ego often when I feel like I'm not doing a good job by reminding me like, ‘Oh, look at the scores that you've been getting. Look at the quality of writing that these kids have achieved.’”
Wilson says she has also learned from her mentees. "My mentees give me new ideas for teaching topics I’ve taught for years. Our relationship is symbiotic in that although I am there to help teachers become their best selves in the classroom, my mentees also teach me when I observe them teach using new technology tools, activities, or learning strategies that I had never thought of before," Wilson said. "It’s a great opportunity for like-minded people coming from different backgrounds and generations to exchange information to improve student learning.”
Like Wilson, Michelle Salas, a veteran kindergarten teacher at MOSAICS Public School in Caldwell, Idaho, wanted to take on more responsibility in coaching at her school. In fact, Salas had already forged an informal mentorship with Cassedy Spencer (Idaho ’21), a new kindergarten teacher at the school.
So last year, when Teach For America Idaho launched its School Building Mentor Leadership program, Salas asked her principal if she could lead the program at her school and formalize her mentorship with Spencer as part of the program.
As a new teacher, Spencer is grateful to have a more experienced teacher to “lean on and bounce ideas off” as she learned the ropes of managing a classroom. “I didn’t feel like I was drowning alone, which was really nice,” Spencer said. “Honestly, what I learned from Michelle is everything.”
In turn, Salas says mentoring Spencer has kept her “on her toes” and that she’s learned new classroom techniques and approaches from observing Spencer in her classroom.
Why Meaningful Educator Mentorships Matter
When mentorship relationships are successful, they provide both professional and personal benefits to mentors and mentees alike—but they don’t stop there. The positive effects can ripple out and benefit entire school communities. Research shows that successful mentorships can improve beginner teacher retention and even boost student achievement.
For educators of color, mentorship can take on heightened significance. Given the disproportionate number of white educators and school leaders, it's not always easy for educators of color and school leaders of color to find mentors who share their identities and backgrounds. This was on Worrell’s mind when Newman first approached her seeking her guidance.
“There are definitely more leaders of color founding schools, but I would say over a decade ago that wasn't the case,” Worrell said. Mindful of the “imposter syndrome that Black women sometimes feel, especially when there aren’t as many of us leading the way,” Worrell wanted to be a figure of support for Newman. “I took on Lagra’s success as my success, especially as Black women.”
A growing body of research is exploring how mentorship among educators of color could help improve teacher retention and support the promotion of teachers of color into school leadership positions. A 2017 research brief from the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and the Huston-Tillotson Teacher Education Program found that “aspiring and new teachers can benefit from mentoring relationships with peers that are from similar backgrounds and are trained at institutions with common commitments to educational equity.”
Authenticity Is a Key to Successful Mentorships
Not all mentorships are made equal. Without intentionality, some mentorships may fail to make their intended impact. Jennifer Wilson in New Orleans said that although she’s had several mentors in the past, she didn’t always get a lot out of the relationships because she didn’t feel they were approaching her from a place of authentic interest.
That changed when she met Todd Morano while she was teaching Spanish in San Diego. He was particularly impactful on her development as an educator and coach, she said. “He was just this jolly Santa Claus of a gentleman,” Wilson explained. Instead of observing her with pen in hand and taking notes to report to her superiors, he would invite her to Starbucks and just listen to her. Morano gave Wilson a safe space to vent, share insecurities, and ask questions.
This relationship was instrumental in shaping Wilson’s own approach to mentorship years later.
“I think that as a new teacher, you need to feel heard and supported above all. One of the biggest things that I can give my teachers, apart from the arsenal of materials I have accumulated over the years, is my presence as a sounding board and a confidant,” Wilson explained. “So when mentoring, it is important for my mentees to not just feel, but truly know that I’m there for them. I'm not reporting what they are doing that's wrong. My priority is helping them grow and feel confident in the craft of teaching.”
For Duplantier, authenticity and trust are also essential in mentorship relationships. He believes Bunton’s way of showing up authentically to work each day, cracking jokes with students and staff alike, is one of her greatest qualities as a mentor and friend. Her presence at school has inspired the way Duplantier carries himself as an educator and a colleague.
“Whether you're solving a two-step equation or writing an essay, the mood we bring not only to staff but to the classroom is important. That joy reverberates,” Duplantier said. “A lot of students have taken after Eileen for her jokes and just the presence she brings as a bundle of joy to our school.”
Similarly, Quezada’s mentorship with Wilson makes her feel like she’s cared about “as a person,” not just as a colleague. “We became good friends,” Quezada said. “It's just been really nice to have that, especially being new to a city, new to a space, new to a career.”
As for Newman and Worrell, their mentorship has blossomed into a deeply meaningful friendship filled with self-care, travel, and celebrations of joyful milestones like Newman’s baby shower.
Looking back on it, it’s hard for Newman to believe how much she gained from taking a chance and asking Worrell out to lunch on a summer day in New York over 10 years ago. “If someone had told me back then that this mentorship would lead to all of this, I would have never believed them,” Newman said.