For a recent workshop on faculty mentoring at Phillips Exeter Academy, I offered the following reflections, which I share here in case they’re of use to others in the world of higher and secondary education.
Notes on Faculty Mentoring / Tom Simpson
Phillips Exeter Academy / August 26, 2022
I’ve loved being in the mentoring role for a brilliant, diverse cohort of new faculty in the religion department – 4 wonderful new faculty members who’ve joined us in the last 3 years. A few reflections on what I’ve learned from them in the process of helping them navigate their adjustments to Exeter life:
- As you work with your mentee, really get to know them, they way you would an advisee: What weighs on them, what gives them life & joy, what do they miss about home, and what specific practices will help them breathe, reflect, survive, and stay in touch – and in tune – with their deeper/truer self that transcends the tight boundaries and strict demands of this place? What are their favorite tv shows, movies, games, and playlists? What familial relationships and friendships from their “past life” sustain them and matter most to them? Check in frequently with them on all these fronts: What’s their stress level on a scale of 1-5? What can you help them process and navigate?
- Use your knowledge of the institution and the surrounding area to connect them to people they might really enjoy meeting, especially outside your department. Make space and time for these connections. Show them where they can go for restorative joy, for soul & comfort food, for friendship & community (“onboarding”). Don’t assume, of course, that the places that give you joy are the same ones that will give your mentee joy.
- Protect them from taking on too much, remind them of looming deadlines and periods of intensity in the academic calendar (midterm grades, family weekend, etc.), and guide them toward material resources (funding) that will support their professional goals (“planning backwards”).
- As you do all this work, think like a sociologist: Exeter culture is foreign for everyone, but with varying degrees of intensity. For me, the strongest tensions have to do with the fact that I grew up going to public schools in a small place at the intersection of northern Appalachia and the rust belt. I didn’t grow up around wealth; no one in my surroundings ever talked about, much less attended, schools like Exeter. // But as someone who is racialized as White, gendered as male & cishet, a U.S. citizen, highly credentialed, and the descendant of generations of people who were given the opportunity to go to college and own a home, it’s extremely rare for anyone to question whether I belong here or to question my competence and intelligence. I look the part, so I have a kind of armor – or invisibility cloak – that allows me to move within and beyond the Academy community without anyone questioning my presence. For obvious reasons, not all new faculty will have this luxury in an academic community that has a long history of coding intelligence, excellence, prestige, success, safety, human potential, and human worth as White. // Even so, aspects of my Exeter experience have been painful, and my ability to push through during those times has had everything to do with knowing that I have colleagues who will genuinely understand – and use some of their accumulated social/professional capital to stand up for me when I’m raising a legitimate concern. On that front, help them navigate any particular hierarchies they may find themselves inserted into and any issues of equity & justice that may arise: Is your mentee forever being asked to “take one for the team” in terms of their classroom space, their housing, and/or the courses they teach? Are they being expected / encouraged to stifle their creativity and voice in departmental decision-making? Are there “unwritten rules” and expectations in the department that new faculty should know about? (Again, think like a sociologist: What seems familiar, natural, and unobjectionable to insiders can seem strange, arbitrary, and misguided to newcomers whose identities have been formed and forged in other contexts.)
In short, the extent to which mentors understand precisely what new faculty love about Exeter, and precisely what makes this life a struggle for them, will help determine the extent to which new faculty can thrive. That, in turn, will help determine the extent to which new faculty can be freed to be fully present for, and fully engaged with, our students.