If We Only Get Three Great Mentors …

In the movie A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s Sonny explains that we each have “three great ones” in our lives. While Sonny waxes on about the belief that we all only have three great loves in our life, recent news has me wondering if the same holds true for professional mentors.

I was incredibly fortunate to have two absolutely incredible mentors early in my career. The former executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, Phyllis Blaunstein, was my first. Phyllis first showed me there was more to successful communications that simply “PR.” She introduced me to the concept of public engagement. I learned from her days at what is now the U.S. Department of Education when she helped pass the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thus ushering in special education as we now know it. Phyllis taught me how to be a professional. She taught me how to engage in active listening. She helped me become a qualitative researcher. And she has guided me through far more professional twists and turns then I can ever imagine.

My second was Reid Lyon. A former Army Ranger, Reid is the Godfather of research-based reading instruction. Reid gave me a practical Ph.D. in education earned on the mean streets of the Reading Wars. He taught me how to disaggregate data and how to tell good research from bad. He also taught me how to dream big when no progress was thought possible. In DC, I was fortunate enough to work with Reid on the National Reading Panel and the federal Partnership for Reading. I then followed him to the private sector as we sought to revolutionize teacher education and the high school-to-college pipeline.

Phyllis and Reid have had an enormous impact on my life. I was lucky enough to co-edit a book – Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education – with them, a primer for parents on how to move research-based literacy instruction into their local schools. Reid was a personal reference as I went through the adoption of my son. And Phyllis continues to be a source of advice, wisdom, and inspiration, 20 years after we first met. I considered myself fortunate to have both of them in my life, and to be able to call both of them mentors. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy the luck and fortune that would give me that third great mentor in my life.

That changed when I joined the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. For many years, I had heard the legend of Arthur Levine, particularly as he fought to improve schools of education from his perch as president of one of the most well known teachers colleges out there. I had read his work and had seen him on panels and giving plenary lectures.

Four years ago, Arthur brought me in to head communications and strategy for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. There, he had created two ambitious programs — the state Teaching Fellowship and the MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership — and sought to expand them. He yearned to strengthen the reputation of the Foundation and its impact on educator development and school improvement. And he planned to launch a new graduate school of education — one based on competencies and content mastery — intended to successfully prepare teachers for both the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow.

For the past 1,455 days, I have worked alongside Arthur to help bring those dreams to reality. Each of those days, he has served as a mentor and teacher. I have learned about organizational management and successful fundraising. I have learned about innovation and strategic planning. I have about the history of higher education and about what the future can hold for the field. And I been able to strengthen my belief in the importance of the customer (the student) and of outcomes in education, particularly when one looks to transform institutions and systems that may be in need of change, but is resistant to it.

Earlier today, it was my job to announce Arthur’s intentions to step down from his perch at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation next summer. After 13 years at WW, Arthur is allowing a new voice to write the next chapter in the organization’s history. He does so leaving the Foundation in a much stronger financial and programmatic position than the one he found it in. And he does so showing eight states and more than 35 institutions of higher education that change is both possible and achievable when it comes to improving how we prepare educators, particularly those for high-need schools.

In 340 days, my third “great one” will step aside. I’m far enough along in my career to know that A Bronx Tale may indeed be correct, and we only get three great mentors. For now, I get to make the most of the time, working feverishly to accomplish all of organizational goals we have laid out for the next year.

In the long term, I can only hope to hold on to all of the lessons I have learned from all of those who have made me the (hopefully successful) professional I am today. And I need to try to continue to examine and better understand what I have learned, knitting together those lessons and new reflections on them so that I can continue to become a better educator, a better strategic communicator, and a better not-for-profit executive.

Words can never express all that we have taken from our mentors, all that they have taught up, and all that we appreciate from the experiences. I can only hope that the next chapters in my own professional life show to Arthur (and Reid and Phyllis) what sort of impact they truly have had on me.

(This piece was also published on LinkedIn Pulse.)

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