The Perpetuity of Mentorship

“A teacher (principal) affects eternity; he (she) can never tell where his (her) influence stops.” – Henry Adams

As a principal, I often find myself reflecting on the myriad experiences I’ve had learning from others. As a school leader, many of my reflections naturally coalesce around a few principals who had a long lasting impact on me both as a student and as a current principal. As with many mentor/mentee relationships, I have the tremendous blessing of still benefiting from three of these life-impacting principals.

Our Teachers Focused on Intellectual Rigor, Racial Pride, Self-Discipline, Political Thought & Activism

Community mindedness, secure racial identity and academic skill development were focal points that one of my first principals wanted to embody in her students. Mama Fasaha Traylor was my elementary school principal at Nidhamu Sasa, an African Freedom School in Germantown established in 1972. We were taught to have a positive racial identity with a focus on racial pride, self-discipline, self-control, political thought and activism, and intellectual and physical rigor. We were effectively taught that we were responsible for our actions and our community-even in elementary school. This focus on community building, student achievement, and dedication to our community remains embedded in my decisions and outlook. Mama Fasaha and her team invested heavily in both our academic and social skills. Their goal was to do whatever was necessary to promote both our personal well-being and that of the community at large. We even studied an African martial art, Vita Saana, to protect our communities.

A teacher (principal) affects eternity; he (she) can never tell where his (her) influence stops

Mr. Charles D’Alfonso made a calculated investment in hiring me as a new, career changer to prepare his 8th grade students for high school and beyond. All too often, principals and districts don’t fully support new teachers or give them time to grow their roots. Mr. D’Alfonso (and the School District of Philadelphia) had the foresight to not only place me on a strong grade team, but to also provide me with mentors (Mrs. Corbett and Mrs. Lee) and I was assigned Mrs. Savior (more on her later) as my new teacher coach. Mr. D’Alfonso also made sure I was connected with other teacher leaders in the school-including two Black men who had teacher leadership roles in the school. Dr. Blackwell was a Small Learning Community Coordinator (SLCC) and Mr. Gibbs was also a SLCC who later transitioned to become Turner’s Special Education Liaison. I have tried to internalize the impact of the support I enjoyed and the leadership skills I gained as a well-mentored teacher leader and later a principal.

Both New Teachers & new principals need mentors

Later, after serving ten years as a teacher, lead teacher, and Assistant Principal at Turner Middle School, I was recruited to become the principal at Shaw Middle School in southwest Philadelphia. I would be reunited as a coachee and mentee with Mrs. Savior. She became my official new principal coach and would continue to challenge and mentor me as a principal in similar and different ways than she did when I was a nascent teacher. Although Mrs. Savior continued to provide feedback and support, she helped me to develop my own vision and systems for Shaw. She even chipped in with the inordinate amount of paperwork that could have easily inundated a brand new principal! When a supervisor expressed his chagrin at my “unprofessional” poster of Malcolm X and lamented that my picture was thumbtacked on the wall, Mrs. Savior supported me and purchased large, framed posters of both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Again, mentorship and coaching, both informally and formally, propelled my school’s success and solidified the impact of a great mentor on an emerging leader.

I remain in touch with all three of these coaches and mentors. Their influence resonates through time because their investment in me has allowed me to further invest in and partner with thousands of other children and families. The collective coaching that I benefited from impacted me over the past 23 years and informed my practice to ensure that new teachers and leaders have robust support. My experiences have guided me to partner with local leaders in order to commit support to a larger base beyond my immediate school community-especially Black Male educators- through our recently launched organization, The Fellowship and our Black Male Educators Convenings (BMEC). Through our BMECs, led by Vincent Cobb and William Hayes, we will provide Black male educators with opportunities to network and receive support tailored to their unique needs.

Indeed, the roots of influential support deepen over time. Mama Fasaha, Mr. D’Alfonso, and Mrs. Savior’s collective investments continue to ripple forward. With many of my former students and teachers now serving as teacher leaders and principals, the impact of my mentors continues to positively affect the future.

This originally was published here. There are slight modifications, but my views remain the same-only enhanced and deepened over time.

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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