Ana Fernandez, 2018 PIC Cohort Alumni and Principal of Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School, is a great story-teller. She’s warm and effusive, and it’s clear to see how the leaders she mentors through the Dallas ISD New Principal Academy (NPA) have benefited from the wisdom and experience she’s gained after five years of school leadership. Ironically, however, wisdom and insight are not what Ana considers to be the most important characteristics of a great mentor. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of empathy, dependability, and open-mindedness.
Lead through empathy
“I’m a listener and I’m a caring person by nature,” Ana shared with us. “I listen and observe people to get to know who they are. The first time I meet with people I will be coaching or mentoring, I focus on getting to know who they are as a person. I want to know how they receive feedback and how they want support.”
In Ana’s opinion, taking the time to get to know each mentee is essential because it allows time to adjust mentorship style to fit different needs. This was especially true of her experience coaching three different principals in NPA. One preferred to have her shadow and provide feedback after, the other she talked to almost every day, and the third appreciated having her to ask questions but only as needed.
Because Ana was quick to listen in the beginning, she was able to tailor her support to fit these preferences and build trust. “I learned I had to give them their space as leaders and to make sure my support was welcome. I wanted to show each person respect and acknowledge their strength as leaders, but also make sure they knew that it would be okay to crack and show vulnerability with me,” she shared.
Empathy also helped Ana to differentiate her listening to fit the needs of each moment. “Sometimes they just needed someone to talk to and sometimes they needed to be challenged. I learned to stay quiet in some moments and to push them for more in others,” Ana explained.
Make time to listen
Another key aspect of Ana’s mentorship style is dependability. She is firm that mentors need to dedicate consistent time to their mentees and stick to it even when other priorities arise. “Setting aside time to offer mentees is very important. As principals, we are always going from one thing to the other, but really calendarizing the time to be with your mentees is important. It’s not only about the check-ins, but also about providing consistent and unstructured time set aside so that your mentees know they talk to you no matter what,” she shared.
Even if the mentee didn’t have a direct need at the time of the check-in, Ana was consistent in protecting that space. “I would tell me mentees that we could talk about family or personal life or work. It didn’t matter. The principalship can be very lonely, particularly your first year, because you don't know who you can talk to, so I wanted to set that time aside. It’s something I wish I had my first year to really just sit down and talk about anything,” Ana shared.
Linda Kratzert, one of Ana’s mentees in the NPA, affirmed Ana’s dependability and willingness to listen.”She’s one of those people that is always there when you need them. No matter what time of day, she answers the phone. She helped me through a lot of personal and professional things and was always there to provide a soundboard. I was just really blessed.”
Fernando Rubio, another of Ana’s three mentees, echoed this sentiment. “She was always available and willing to listen,” he explained.
Fernando further explained that this willingness to listen made Ana’s mentorship a bright spot in his first year of school leadership. “It was probably the highlight of my year because it was a safe space where I could share information and know that she was not going to be judgmental,” he said. She was always enthusiastic and had a growth mindset. Even when I made a mistake she would help me frame it in a positive way. She was like a security blanket in a way.”
Remember that mentorship is a two-way road
In addition to empathy and dependability, Ana’s final recommendation to future mentors is to maintain an open mind. “Mentorship is a two way road. You are a mentor, but you are also a learner. I think we all learn from each other, so being a mentor is not only about sharing your experiences with people but also learning from their experiences,” she explained.
She further emphasized that leaders should keep an open mind to the diverse strengths and needs of different school leaders. “You cannot make a person be like you, you cannot make a person have the experiences as you or the same results as you. You have to use the research and offer different solutions to that person so it fits their leadership style,” she said.
While the principalship can certainly be difficult, particularly during the first year, we are grateful for leaders like Ana that dedicate their time and expertise to mentor others.
Note: The New Principal Academy is an initiative housed in Dallas ISD’s LEAD Department in partnership with the Principal Impact Collaborative.