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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Paying It Forward, One Principal at a Time

  Tom Vona
  Tom Vona
Senior Associate and Mentor

I believe that each of us is endowed with unique God-given gifts and talents that must be nurtured and supported in order for us to realize their full potential. Once we understand and appreciate what our gifts and talents are, it is our responsibility to use them to make the world a better place.

For me, the path to realizing what my unique gifts and talents are came through self-awareness, education, prayer, people who believed in me, those who opened paths for me, and those who supported and mentored me throughout my life. Thus I was able to strive to reach my potential, achieve goals I set for myself, and now, in retirement, attempt to pass on what helped me succeed in my chosen field by assisting those who are advancing their careers in the field of education.

The State of New Jersey requires new public school principals (and other administrators) to have a mentor from outside their school district for the first two years of service. This program, called New Jersey Leaders to Leaders (NJ-L2L), is sponsored by the Foundation for Educational Administration through the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. As a long-time NJPSA member, I became quite interested in NJ-L2L after I retired as a high school principal. I believed that my many years of experience provided me with the background, knowledge, and temperament necessary for this endeavor.

I have mentored three different principals since I began working in NJ-L2L: two high school principals and one elementary principal. The experience has been extremely rewarding for me and has led to the development of what I believe will be life-long relationships. Most important to this process, of course, is the building of strong bonds of trust and respect. If a person is going to be open and honest with you, share problems with you, or even be willing to communicate his or her own perceived weaknesses to you, a great deal of trust must exist. This kind of trust develops over time, but if the mentor does not cultivate the right kind of rapport, the entire mentor/resident relationship will not succeed. As the administrator of the program said at a recent meeting of residents and mentors, the mentor should become the resident’s best friend for the two years of the induction program.

To be effective, the mentor must demonstrate, first and foremost, that he or she is professional and very knowledgeable regarding the issues important to the new principal. He or she must have kept abreast of new laws in education. It is equally essential that the mentor exhibits that he or she also has a very human side and is there to work collaboratively with the principal. The mentor must sincerely communicate that there is nothing involved with his or her role as principal that cannot be shared, and that everything will be held in the strictest confidence.

One of the reasons I believe I was successful as a principal is that I was blessed with the gift of empathy. I was usually successful at working with and listening to students, staff members, parents, and others who came to see me for one reason or another. First, I would take the time to listen to them, even if I was busy. And I would try to help if it was in my power to do so. If it was a problem that needed a solution, I would discuss different options with them and lead them to the realization that there was a solution. The most important thing was that they knew I cared and would take the time to talk with them no matter what the issue. In most cases they left my office feeling better than when they arrived.

This quality of understanding has informed my work as a mentor. Through being open and demonstrating that I care about their success, I have been able to gain the trust of my residents. This mutual trust allowed us to develop close relationships, which is crucial to the success of the L2L program. These young principals have been open to me, and to suggestions I have made about endeavors we might pursue during our times together. I have accompanied them to meetings with students, teachers, and/or parents; to classroom observations; to post-observation conferences; to meetings with their superintendents; and so forth.

In all my meetings with residents, we have talked about ideas and ways of relating to others that worked successfully for me when I was a principal. I firmly believe that strong people skills and a positive attitude are essential to serving as a successful school leader. I have encouraged my residents to be open with their staffs, to be supportive of them, and to let them know in as many ways as possible that they are there for them. We have discussed how important it is for the principal to be out in the school building as much as possible—to be seen in the hallways, in classrooms (even for short visits), in the cafeteria talking to students informally, and at athletic contests, concerts, and other student activities. I’ve reiterated the great importance of continual positive contact with students, staff, parents, and the broader community, and reminded residents that the principal represents the school in everything he or she does.

I have reached a time in my life when I’m no longer looking to advance my career or seek promotions of any sort. I am quite content with the career I’ve had and with what I’ve accomplished. I have always felt that my career was centered on helping others and giving of myself to advance and better the lives of others. Just because I am retired, however, doesn’t mean that I can no longer contribute to society or use whatever God-given talents I possess that have helped me succeed. This work I am doing now in education is my way of continuing to play a small role in the field to which I have devoted my life and to “pay it forward” in my own way.

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