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Mentoring in Missouri

Chris Gaines, the Wright City (Mo.) R-II School District superintendent, mentors new school chiefs in Missouri.

When new superintendents start their jobs in the United States, some of them have the benefit of help. Since the 2005-2006 school year, the state of Missouri has mandated the mentoring of first-year superintendents. And now, the Missouri Association of School Administrators, which is an arm of the AASA, has a mentoring committee that extends the help, according to Chris Gaines, a former co-chair of that committee and now superintendent of the Wright City (Mo.) R-II School District. Missouri is not alone.

Several other states, including Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, Michigan and Illinois, have either mandatory or voluntary mentoring programs for new superintendents, according to officials from each of those state administrator associations. They provide either a mentor, who might be a retired superintendent or an active superintendent in a neighboring community, or an executive coach. “We believe new superintendents are more likely to succeed if they have a quality mentor,” Gaines says. “We need successful leaders to ensure the success of each student.”

Gaines says that mentors in Missouri are usually retired superintendents or active superintendents who undergo training. Mentors receive a $250 stipend for 10 hours of face-to-face contact and numerous hours of phone calls and email conversations with the rookies. Every year in the state of Missouri, at least 10 percent of the superintendents, or about 60, are new to their jobs and need mentoring. “With that turnover, we’ve got a lot of people who have been mentors and have served as mentors,” Gaines says.

Mentors voluntarily get together once a year at the annual Missouri School Boards’ Association conference, held in cooperation with the Missouri Association of School Administrators, to discuss popular topics. Gaines says much of the discussion revolves around how to deal with school boards, how to deal with personnel issues, and how to handle budget questions and problems.

Over the past two years, Gaines says, the discussions also have been about “asking for help in methodologies on how to do budget reductions in a transparent manner.” A mentor might suggest that the new superintendent dedicate space on the district’s Web site to include information about the budget process. “If possible, we tell them to get the board of education to adopt a process that you are going to follow so it’s done in systematic fashion,” Gaines says. “And then we share with them various models that other folks have used in the state and that have been successful.”

Gaines also says that he has mentored some superintendents using “cognitive coaching,” which is in part about helping people figure out their own problems. He has advised new superintendents not to tell staff members or central office administrators what to do. “But ask the questions so they can come to an answer through having them reflect on what’s happening,” he says. “We try to help them look at problems from a different perspective and ask them questions they might not be thinking on their own. When you’re new in a job, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

In other situations that are complicated, Gaines says he advises new superintendents to contact the school attorney. “Sometimes,” he says, “they need more specific expertise.”