Don't Have a Mentor? Get One!

Kelli DeMonte | Jefferson-Lincoln Elementary Principal, Centralia School District
May 18, 2020
photo of kelli and gary

I vividly remember my first year as an elementary school administrator. It was comparable to my first year as a teacher. No it wasn’t. It was worse. My first formal meeting with the Superintendent began with a “welcome aboard” handshake and smile, immediately followed by a long list of tasks I was required to accomplish. Overwhelming? Just a little. This list included implementing systems for student safety, closing achievement gaps, aligning curriculum and instruction, and strengthening student behavior support systems, to name a few. I was expected to do this work while still finding time to actually get to know my staff, and you know, build relationships.

Self-doubt immediately kicked in, and I began questioning my ability to lead a school.

After a week of allowing sleep deprivation and a diet of unhealthy food to get the best of me, I was desperate for help and I knew I needed it fast. I turned to the AWSP for guidance; because, after all, they’re the experts. I learned about their mentor program, a program designed specifically to support principals in their initial years of leadership. I was connected with Gary Culbertson, a former elementary school principal, who agreed to serve as my mentor. I’m not sure Gary knew what he was getting into at the time, but three years later, he continues to answer my phone calls, even when he knows there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be crying.

Principal certification programs don’t offer courses on how to respond to a hostile parent who corners you in a tiny office space or how to tell employees that they no longer have a job due to a levy loss. Nor do they offer a course about the power of mentorship. But they should. Gary provided me tools for, what had felt like, a pretty empty toolbox. He talked me through some tough situations; situations that left me wanting to throw in the towel. While I still have much to learn, I’m confident I’m a successful principal because of the mentors in my life. Mentors. Plural. I have four. Why? Because you can only learn what you don’t know by connecting with people who do know; people who experienced things you haven’t and can lead you in the right direction. I have the deepest gratitude for the expertise, guidance, and friendships my mentors have offered me.

I’ve experienced more rewards as a principal than I ever did during my years as a classroom teacher, and I know for a fact my passion for being a lead learner is because of the ongoing support of my mentors. I’ve learned skills that have allowed me to leave work at a decent hour every day, increase my time with family, and fit in time at the gym. My most recent accomplishment – ready for your mind to be blown – I gave up my office so I can spend my school days with kids and staff. Thank you, mentors, for being game-changers in the life of an elementary school principal.

I highly encourage you to have a mentor by your side. If you don’t have one, get in touch with Gina Yonts. She is ready to partner you with someone amazing to help guide you through your leadership adventure.

Want to chat? Let’s make it happen! Email me.

AWSP thanks Kelli for sharing her mentor story with us, and sharing some of her practice with all of you. Check out her Morning Mindfulness video below.


  • Mentoring
  • mentor
  • College
  • Induction
  • Mindfulness
  • SEL
  • Video
  • Kelli DeMonte
  • Resource
  • Hopeful and Inspiring
  • Video

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