Mentoring is very much on my mind at the moment. Many of you on Facebook saw the photo I posted last week of three mentors, including me, who have been supporting Sara, the fourth person in the picture – you won’t have any trouble distinguishing her from the mentoring trio – for 27 years. In our most recent dinner together the other night, Sara reminded us of the fact that she was only 21 years old when we began serving together at the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago. Given the name of our organization, you can only imagine the anxiety she must have been experiencing, since she had rarely ever set foot in any school other thanthe ones from which she’d graduated. By the time she left the organization more than two decades later, Sara had visited the majority of Chicago’s 400+ public schools, but those first steps were definitely uphill, and we were there to keep her upright.

Mentoring relationships that have endured that long are likely to morph into something that looks more like friendship. In Sara’s case, as with some of the fledgling teachers I’ve mentored, the mentee has raced past me in accomplishments and has become a mentor herself to many.  It’s definitely one of those gifts that keep on giving.

When a friend asked for advice about how she could contribute to improving the appallingly low high school and college graduation rates of students in Chicago Public Schools at the time, I suggested that providing mentors for students in low-income communities could be an important first step. That idea was based on my experience with students in my middle school and high school classrooms who had ambitions but no models for defining the steps between their present and their ultimate goals. If your dream was to be a pediatrician, the road begins with passing your seventh-grade classes, building a strong GPA in high school, getting accepted to a competitive four-year college, etc. Mentors could help you steer around the formidable and discouraging roadblocks.

Out of those conversations, my friend created a program called AIM HIGH. One of the key components of the design was matching high school students with companies which designated teams of mentors to follow them through high school and college. The mentoring arrangements were imperfect for a variety of reasons, but the basic idea was sound, and the program has an impressive roster of college graduates to its credit.

I’ve also been thinking about whether having or needing a mentor is related to a particular period in one’s development. While we usually associate it with the needs of young people, as was the case with Sara, my own experience suggests that mentors can be a great source of support at many different ages. As a teenager, the youth group leader in my synagogue helped me see possibilities for myself that my parents were not equipped to do. Although he died tragically at too young an age, he is still with me almost 70 years later.

When I arrived in Chicago in 1995 at the age of 56, I was as much in need of a mentor as Sara. I had left behind 13 years of work in Houston schools and in the Rice University community for a school system that was twice as large as Houston’s. I was excited to be in Chicago, where there appeared to be a lively school reform effort underway, something that was mostly absent in Houston.

But mentorship was equally critical for me at a much later point in my life. One of the founders of the Center for School Improvement was Sara Spurlark, a recently retired teacher and principal in Chicago Public Schools. Sara was a woman of regal bearing. She was caring and soft-spoken, but she had a steel core. She was principled but shrewdly strategic in pursuing her goals.

When the Center asked me to be the founding director of their charter school, Sara recognized that this was new territory for me. Without a hint of condescension, she stood beside and behind me at every step of the way, from meeting with community groups to gain their support for the new school, to interviewing parents who had applied for a spot in the school. Once the school was up and running, she sat quietly at staff meetings and later advised me about how to defuse tense situation involving teachers, students, parents or the city’s school bureaucracy. Without ever lecturing me, she modeled how to win trust without ever ceding authority. Sara’s work with me at this critical juncture in my professional life was a model of what a mentoring relationship should look like. 

We called her Big Sara, while the Sara with whom this piece began labeled herself Sara Jr. Big Sara was her mentor too. In fact, she was the mentor-in-chief to all four of us in that photo of us surrounding Sara Jr. She influenced every one of us in life-changing ways. One of our favorite walking places is the park-like grounds of Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. On one of those walks my wife and I suddenly found ourselves in front of Big Sara’s grave. In addition to the glistening tombstone, there is a bench which seemed to be inviting visitors to sit down for a bit of advice, just as I had countless times in her office at the head of the stairs in Chapin Hall. A mentor’s work is never done.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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