Becoming an Effective Mentor

by Dr. Willie Jackson

Benjamin Franklin’s well-known quote “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn” is a constant reminder that mentoring is a learning process that involves sharing, action, and participation. Though there are many definitions, perspectives, and approaches to mentoring, it’s generally understood that the person being mentored, the mentee, is the one engaged in learning. Learning occurs during the mentoring process when both mentor and mentee experience paradigm shifts in attitude and are committed and engaged in developing a trusting relationship to achieve an outcome. For the mentor, learning does not stop with mastering the mechanics of “how to” mentor. To be an effective mentor, incorporating four lessons will be helpful in addressing both the personal and professional challenges of mentoring.

Lesson 1: Be clear on why you are a mentor.

Yes, there are great benefits to having wisdom, experience, and legacy. However, these benefits may not automatically provide credibility and validation. It’s very common for mentees to question the mentor’s capacity, sincerity, and ability to work with diverse personalities. To address these concerns, mentors should be able to provide a belief statement or explanation of intent that is directly related to the mentee’s profession or target competency area to develop. For the cohort of principals, the belief statement I share is

I believe principals are second only to teachers in eliminating student achievement gaps. The way to eliminate the achievement gaps is by enhancing a principal’s competence skills as educational leaders. I happen to know resources, educational strategies, and techniques that produce great student outcomes for educational leaders. The mentoring process is the way I choose to share experience and knowledge with those who are interested and willing to learn to think differently and challenge themselves.

As a virtual mentor to a group of principals, sharing my belief statement moves the conversation beyond questions about the mentor’s motivation and commitment.

Lesson 2: Expand your concept of mentee profile.

Capturing basic information and characteristics helps mentors build a mentee profile, which might include gender, ethnicity, profession, educational history, roles, and responsibilities in the work place. Simon Sinek describes individuals as either why or how types. The why types are usually visionary, the ones with the overactive imaginations and a focus on the future. The how types are those that live more in the here and now, often operating very pragmatically focusing on things most people can see. This characterization is a way to help the mentor translate or process emotions or behaviors expressed by mentees that could be taken negatively or as personal attacks.

At the beginning of the interactions, mentee emotions might be characterized as indifferent or indignant as they come to terms with the capabilities of the mentor and the impact the mentor may have on their established beliefs and routines. A why type might express indifference by questioning what the mentor has to offer; while a how type may express indifference by questioning or challenging their need for a mentor. What might come across as being indignant may be the how type’s way of indicating or acknowledging that having a mentor will interfere with routines. Effective mentoring requires an understanding of and the ability to work with diverse personalities. Incorporating the characteristics of why types or how types into the mentee profile ultimately provides a context for interaction.

Lesson 3: Trust is the basic building block of a successful or productive mentoring relationship.

There are several steps a mentor follows or executes as part of the process. Simon Sinek said it best: “Trust is not a checklist…trust is a feeling, not rational experience…” Trust is not just a five letter word with a single definition. T.R.U.S.T is an acronym representing actions on behalf of both mentor and mentee.

T…Truth is giving data-driven feedback.

R…Respect given is then received when responses and suggestions are acknowledged.

U…Understanding is achieved when empathic and attentive listening is the rule of thumb.

S…Synergy results when engaging, thinking, and working with others to achieve more than each could accomplish alone.

T…Transition and change are constant when open to and pursuing growth opportunities.

Trust emerges over a period of time when both mentor and mentee observes as well as listens while engaging in dialogue with humility.

Lesson 4: Less talking creates the opportunity for greater listening.

Psychotherapist F. Diane Barth asserts that “Talking is part of what we humans do. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.” Although imparting knowledge and wisdom through conversation is an essential part of the mentoring process, the danger for mentors is talking too much. Peppering the conversation with statements like “Let me tell you a story,” and then following them with a lengthy monologue is an indication that the mentor may be dominating the conversation. Using a reflection checklist to measure talk vs. listen time is a tool for self-assessment. Checklist items the mentor should monitor include interruptions, as well as instances where the mentee asks to finish a thought.

Effective mentors resist the inclination to demonstrate wisdom by continually talking. Instead, they balance talking and listening. When mentors talk less, mentees have more opportunity to talk. Mentors can demonstrate effectively listening by formulating questions and asking for clarity in order to determine what the mentee is trying to communicate. Also, effective listeners use their eyes as well as their ears. Listening with eyes and ears involves observing the nonverbal and verbal expressions. Mentors allow others to be themselves. That requires the mentor to step into the mentee’s world and learn about the mentee’s experiences and feelings. Affirming who they are gives mentees the support they need to take the next step in their own growth.


Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, New York: Portfolio, Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Barth, F. D. (2012, April 22). LCSW in Off the Couch. Retrieved from

Henning Mankell/Mapto, Mozambique (2011, December 10). In Africa, the Art of Listening. The New York Times. Retrieved from listening.html.

NAESP (n.d.) The National Principal Mentor Training and Certification Program Learning Guide (module 4). Retrieved from

Dr. Willie Jackson

The Author

Dr. Willie Jackson has over 10 years’ experience as a coach and mentor for educators, administrators, and business professionals. Since founding Reflective Resource Incorporated, she has provided coaching and mentoring services to individuals, groups, and school districts, focusing on assistant principals and teachers aspiring to become principals. She is a National Certified Principal Mentor with The National Association of Elementary School Principal (NAESP), along with being an active member of the International Mentoring Association (IMA).

She serves as a NAESP coach for principals enrolled in a nine month mentoring certification program. In the past 7 years, she has worked with 10 cohorts of principals, which included 75 elementary, middle, or high school principals from 15 states. In addition, Dr. Jackson spent two years as a Minneapolis Public School (MPS) teacher on special assignment as a professional developer/trainer and case manager. In this capacity, Dr. Jackson provided one-on-one mentoring to both general and special education teachers to address motivation, resilience and sustainability.

Dr. Jackson was a featured speaker at the “No Child Left Out” Peter’s Group education conference, where she presented a workshop on the role of principal mentoring and teacher coaching in student achievement. In February 2010, she was a guest on the Donna Moore Wesby “Education Matters” radio program on WAAW 94.7, broadcasting from South Carolina during National Mentoring month.

She has an Ed.D in educational policy and administration; MS in education and counseling; Specialist Certification in curriculum design and industrial relations; and BA in accounting, economics and sociology.