by Kay Windsor
North Carolina mentor

When I read “Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?”, an article in The New Yorker sent to me by a family member after we had talked about mentoring and why it’s helpful, I couldn’t help but think of the mentors I’ve had and continue to have in my life.

You might think that at my age—when my Medicare card is probably due in the mail any day now—having a mentor would be far from my needs. Isn’t wisdom supposed to come with age after all? Shouldn’t I be at the peak of my experience and expertise by now? Aren’t I the mentor, after all?

Gaining wisdom, though, is far from the only advantage of mentoring or being mentored, and “peaking” isn’t necessarily my aim at this point in my life either. I am also learning that mentoring/coaching seems to work well when it is reciprocal.

I have had — and continue to have — so many mentors/coaches during parts of my life that it would be a disservice to try to name them all and leave someone out. So I will mention two that I have right now, why I need them, and how they have coached and coaxed me.

A friend with whom I served for many years in North Carolina Scholastic Media Association is a current JEA mentor who has offered wise guidance, encouragement, rethinking of issues and nudging to me as well as to the young teachers she mentors. She did this when we were both still in the classroom and as we taught at summer institutes and conferences, and she does it now as we meet to share mentoring experiences and encouragement for each other. She mentions a strength that I wasn’t aware that I have, suggests how that might help in supporting a mentee, and that recharges my enthusiasm for my own task of mentoring.

The key in what she offers is wise listening. She listens and nudges, listens and encourages, and just listens. That’s a good strategy for coaching me, a person who slowly savors something I am learning until it becomes my own.

At JEA mentor training last spring, I embraced the coaching-to-strengths theme offered as a key to mentoring well. One of my daughters-in-law follows Adlerian psychology in her work as a counselor and in her life as the parent of four of my granddaughters. She coaches to strengths in her family and in her profession, but that does not mean offering “false praise” or superficial or insubstantial comments aimed toward fluffing up self esteem. She encourages cooperation and mutual respect.

She teaches me tolerance and reminds me of our interconnectedness in the human community. I have learned by her example and by our conversation that this way of living is a supportive way of coaching.

As for the reciprocal parts, perhaps I can return the wise listening and examples that both of these coaches offer me so that I can in turn more easily connect with and support the JEA mentees with whom I work. I hope so. I continue to be mentored as I mentor.

Atul Gawande, a physician and the author of The New Yorker article, addresses the perception that others may have when a person who seems to have experience seeks or accepts a mentor: Perhaps something about the mentee is deficient.

How would you feel as a patient if you saw an observer about to accompany you into the operating room with the experienced surgeon you contracted to provide the surgery for you?  In that moment, I might not be convinced that the surgeon had all the skills needed to help me, but I hope that because of my experience as a mentor, a mentee, a coach and one coached, I would be encouraged that another set of eyes, another good mind was there to offer support.

We can all use a wise mentor or two.


The article by Atul Gawande, “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” appeared in the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of The New Yorker.