Activity Guide

Characteristics of a Mentor

Asking school leaders: “How did you get as good as you are?” usually leads to a discussion about improving practice and recognizing the impact of professional role models whose interest has led to improved leadership strategies. Most educators have a professional “mentor” who has taken an interest in their leadership capacity and who has helped identify career experiences that will further develop leadership capacity. These activities ask participants to reflect on their practice, identify skill areas for growth, and plan a pathway to improve their leadership skills and develop those of a colleague.


  • Notepaper and writing utensils for each participant
  • Chart paper and markers

Reflecting and Sharing Activity

This activity may be used with teachers, teacher leaders, administrators, or a mix.

  • Most successful professionals have received the assistance and support of a mentor during their career. Ask participants to reflect on people who have made a positive difference in their professional growth as a successful educator. Then, think about one of these individuals they might describe as their mentor. This person might be a teacher, principal, clerical worker, family member, or friend. Ask participants to write the person’s name at the top of a blank page of paper, then list the traits or behaviors the person exhibits that have made him or her so influential in the participants’ professional growth.
  • Break participants into groups of three to five. Ask them to compare the lists of traits and behaviors they’ve identified with the ones listed by others in their group. How many commonalities did they find? How many differences?
  • Ask participants in each group to come to agreement about five or six traits/behaviors that are most important in developing leadership skills. They should rank those traits in order of importance.
  • Reconvene to the larger group, then debrief the conversation by asking each group to read its list. As each list is read, record the mentor characteristics on chart paper. Indicate by checks, hash marks, or some other notation when traits or behaviors are listed by more than one group. Rank the list according to those traits selected by most groups. Post the list for reference for the next activity.

Increasing Capacity

  • Research shows that effective leadership is based on capacity in three areas: knowledge of proven practices, skills to perform, and attitudes. Use the following definitions to facilitate a discussion around the meanings of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
    • Knowledge. Knowledge in a wide variety of areas is essential to effective school leadership. Knowledge typically comes from life and professional preparation programs. Experience is another valuable source of knowledge. While knowledge is important, it alone does not ensure capacity.
    • Skills. Skill may be defined as the capacity to perform effectively in the context of a given situation using requisite knowledge within the parameters of one’s attitudes.
    • Attitudes. Attitude or disposition is the belief structure and personal characteristics that fuel one’s will to perform and achieve.
  • After the discussion, refer to the list of mentor characteristics developed earlier. Seek input from the group to categorize each mentor trait or behavior as knowledge, skill, or attitude. Some of the characteristics may not fit neatly into one category and there may be some disagreement. Engage discussion around these and other items as to the importance of integrating knowledge, skill, and attitude in effective mentor performance.
  • Explore with the group whether a balance exists between the three areas of mentor characteristics. Ask what happens if a mentor is missing positive capacity in one or more of the three areas (knowledge, skills, or attitudes).
  • Ask each group to refer to the categorized list and discuss skills, attitudes, or knowledge that might be missing from this list. Ask each group to report characteristics that are missing and add those to the list. As each group contributes additional items, ask them to label each as knowledge, skill, or attitude.
  • Debrief by facilitating a discussion about the comparative ease or difficulty one might experience in developing his or her capacity in knowledge, skills, and attitudes listed on the flipchart. How does one gain knowledge? How does one develop skills? How are attitudes shaped over time? What is the chance of significantly changing a person’s attitudes?

Extend and Apply

  • Ask participants to review the list of mentor characteristics and reflect on their own knowledge. Which of the knowledge characteristics on the group list are seen as personal strengths? Ask participants to write in their notes one or two knowledge characteristics they believe are strengths and one or two characteristics they need to develop to successfully serve as a mentor. Ask them to list possible strategies for improvement.
  • Ask participants to review the list of mentor characteristics in terms of their own current skills. Repeat the process of reflecting on skills they consider as strengths and those they would like to improve. Write one or two of each in their notes and list possible strategies for improvement.
  • Repeat the process with the list of mentor attitudes.
  • In groups of four or more, ask participants to share the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they consider as strengths and those they would like to improve. Within each group, share experiences and discuss strategies for developing capacity in each of the areas. Ask each group to report out regarding potentially productive strategies for growth as mentors. Record strategies on chart paper as groups report out.
  • Challenge each person to commit to one strategy for building their capacity as a mentor and their process for developing knowledge, skills and attitude for that strategy. Ask for volunteers to share their plan.