The intentionality of the St. Mark's efforts to orient new faculty is a far cry from what I experienced when I began my boarding school teaching career in the fall of 1979. If my first school had any formal orientation program for new faculty, I do not remember it. I also know that when I started my career, most boarding schools employed a "close the door and let them have at it" approach to new faculty.
Over the course of my career I have seen the approach to orienting new faculty at boarding schools become far more intentional and extensive. This improvement is part of an overall increasing recognition of the extraordinary degree of sophistication required to deliver high quality education both inside and outside the classroom.
What I remember with great fondness is mentoring advice I received over the course of my first two years of teaching. In the absence of the sort of formal orientation program that St. Mark's and other schools employ in this day and age, that mentoring advice, offered at just the moment I needed it, was all the more important. Mentoring advice remains an essential part of an effective approach to the successful entry of a new faculty member, whether that faculty member is new to boarding schools or simply new to our school.
Two pieces of "just in time" mentoring remain in my mind all these years later. The first came from my History Department chair. As my advisee and I were heading in to an evening discipline committee hearing. I conveyed my panic to my department chair that I would be unable to prepare properly for my next day's classes.
In very reassuring tones, the chair told me that we all need to have a couple of exercises in our back pocket that we can pull out when the inevitable expected—or unexpected—need arises that prevents the normal class preparation time. That need might be an evening discipline hearing, or it might be a sensitive advisee conversation that cannot wait or it might be the need to take a student to the emergency room.
After the hearing concluded, my department chair gave me a couple of exercise ideas that did not require extensive preparation and that I could employ at these inevitable boarding school moments. I slept longer and far more soundly as a result, and my students were well served. While I, and my colleagues, take great pride in our careful preparation for classes, having a couple of strategies for those moments is essential, and that advice has stuck with me, and I offer it often to others.
The second piece of advice came after a practice early in my first season as head varsity baseball coach. From my point of view, the practice had been a disaster. Nothing that I had wanted to see happen had happened at anywhere near the level of quality I expected, and I was left wondering whether the team would ever be able to execute the plays I knew were essential for competitive success.
The advice came from my assistant coach, who had been the highly respected head varsity baseball coach before administrative duties prompted him to relinquish that role. "Remember, John," he told me, "a bad practice is never as bad as you think it was, and a good practice is never as good as you think it was." He then proceeded to point out some silver linings (he did not sugar coat the fact that, all in all, the practice had really been bad). He also reassured me that the approach I was taking to leading the team was sound (and—he said gently and kindly—the approach would benefit from some refinements). This advice has stuck with me ever since because I believe it is applicable to far more than coaching baseball.
I was struck, in my conversation with new faculty members, by the examples they provided of similarly invaluable "just in time" mentoring from veteran colleagues. Sometimes this mentoring came from the mentor assigned by Sam Brennan to each new faculty, and sometimes this mentoring came informally, as mine had.