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June 28, 2018

The Gift of Mentors

Devin Vodicka, Chief Innovation Officer

Even leaders need mentors. AltSchool’s Chief Innovation Officer Devin Vodicka shares how mentorship has deeply impacted his leadership approach.

Almost two decades ago, I was a principal opening a new elementary school while completing my doctorate in organizational leadership. A professor in one of my courses encouraged me to reach out to thought leaders for advice. I made a list of influential thinkers who I felt could help elevate my thinking around the challenges of opening a new school.

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Understanding the Value of Connections

One of those thinkers was Myron Rogers, co-author of A Simpler Way with Margaret Wheatley. I was amazed when he responded to my email and humbled when our correspondence resulted in a visit to our new school. In one of our conversations about living systems and leadership, I asked him what good leaders have in common. His immediate response: They improve connectedness.

That advice fundamentally influenced my approach to leadership. In my dissertation, I explored the relationship between the trust that teachers had for their principal and the social networks of teachers, and found that higher levels of trust were associated with high collaboration and social capital among teachers. The inverse was also true: Lower levels of trust between teachers and their principal correlated to a more isolated teaching practice. This study was completed in collaboration with SRI International as part of a broader research project on social capital and technology implementation. The research team included professors from several universities, including Dr. Yong Zhao, then from Michigan State. As a result, I spent many hours with Yong exploring the connections between social systems and change efforts. After these interactions, I was not surprised when Yong began keynoting conferences and authoring a number of insightful books.

Read more from Devin Vodicka: Utilizing social networks to create a culture of innovation.

Another mentor who has had a strong influence on my leadership is Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise. While I was Superintendent of Vista Unified, we collaborated extensively with Digital Promise through the League of Innovative Schools, via working groups on competency-based education and Open Educational Resources, and XQ: The Super School Project. Karen is a relentless advocate for learners who has incredible visibility into educational innovation across the U.S. I deeply value her perspective.

Given my incredible respect for these thought leaders, it was an honor to host Myron, Yong, and Karen as they toured our AltSchool campuses in San Francisco and took part in a fireside chat with our team. Our visitors had a chance to observe efforts to empower learner agency, including a student “passion project” at Yerba Buena and middle school educator David Rodriguez’s “learning to learn” initiative at Fort Mason. They got to see firsthand the emphasis we put on metacognition through a project with our youngest learners about Maslow’s hierarchy and in a restorative circle focused on building inclusiveness and community. Throughout the visits, students spoke to their ownership of the learning process and the flexibility of their experience.

Read more: David Rodriguez talks about finding his purpose as an educator through personalization.

Continuing to Learn Together

As anticipated, Myron, Yong, and Karen challenged us to intensify our efforts to enable learners to drive their experience. They also encouraged us to be thoughtful and strategic about where and when we apply technology to accelerate this shift. Their feedback heightened my own sense of urgency related to the opportunities and challenges ahead—not just for AltSchool, but for everyone who is invested in transforming education for children. This experience also elevated my curiosity around the untapped potential for mentorship, both for educators and, perhaps even more profoundly, for learners.

I’m grateful to my university professor who encouraged me to seek advice during my doctoral program. That small step sparked a habit of seeking the valuable perspective of mentors who have deepened my practice and undoubtedly improved my effectiveness as a school leader. I’m also grateful for those—including Myron, Yong, and Karen—who balance optimism with pragmatism and have consistently modeled an ethic of service to a larger mission. I hope someday to embody their spirit and pay it forward for others.

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