Paying It Forward: Becoming A Mentor

By: Mary S. Esposito

The Teacher And The Admin is proud to publish this guest article written by Mary S. Esposito, a dedicated, kids-first educator with experience as both a teacher and an administrator. 

What we model is what we get- Jimmy Casas

I’m turning 50 this year.

Although I know all my physical characteristics are screaming 50 right back at me, I look in the mirror and see a very wise 16 year old looking back at me. I honestly don’t know how I got to this year.  Was 1968 really that long ago?

Thinking back on my adult life, I see it primarily through my educator’s lens.  In my 20’s, I became a high school foreign language teacher, in my 30’s a middle school assistant principal, and in my 40’s an elementary school principal.  I truly look forward to what my 50s may bring. Pre-School perhaps? I’ve experienced all different levels and have to say have adored each decade that I spent there.  

I’m either a slow learner or tend to overthink things, but my career tendency has been to stay at a position for a good chunk of time. What I find amazing is that no matter what level I’ve been at, there were always good people there to help guide me.  

Needless to say, I’m one of the luckiest educators in the world to have had an amazing career in world class school system like North Rockland.  I’ll never forget the day I interviewed for my teaching position at North Rockland High School. I drove up to 106 Hammond Road and was blown away by the beauty of the school and its setting. Growing up in Queens and having attended my local high school and then, four years later, starting my career in the same school kind of made me a little ignorant to what else was out there.  

The only reason I really knew that Rockland County existed was because I’d drive through it on the I-287 traveling to and from the ski slopes.

“A good place to settle” I thought.  

This way I wouldn’t have to deal with traffic on two bridges on weekend trips to Upstate or Vermont ski destinations. So the rest was history….two successful interviews, a demo lesson, and I found myself an “upstater” as my family would call me since anything north or west of the GW bridge did not count as the New York metro area. I took a lot of abuse from my family and friends having moved so “far away”.  Afterall, was there actually life outside of the five boroughs?

Creating my new life and career “up” in North Rockland was a great adventure. The first day of new teacher orientation was held up in the Stony Point Conference Center and I swear that was the first day that I actually first experienced  skunk odor.

I was still living in Queens and left my house that morning at about 5:00 am so I wouldn’t be late on my first official day on the job. So I got to my destination and just waited in my car in the parking lot for about two hours wondering what on earth that smell was? City girls were just not exposed to such things.  

Finally, the day began and I got to meet my one of my first North Rockland mentors, Bedelia Fries.  She and I, and about 90 other “freshies”, were new to NR that day. I’ll never forget the impact that she had on me the nine years that we worked together at NR. For me, it was pure awe. The woman was so smart, so articulate, and so well dressed.  I just loved her for what she did for NR and for noticing me as a new teacher to the district and having an interest in what I thought and how I approached teaching. It wasn’t until nine years later, upon hearing of her retirement announcement, that it truly struck me about the impact that she had upon me. I just sat there and cried thinking about not being able to work with her again.  Bea was one of my first heroes.

Before I met Bea, it was Jeannie Doherty.  If it had not been for Jeannie, there would not have been a North Rockland in my history.  In the “old days” before OLAS and “LinkedIn”, there was the yellow pages, paper resumes and stamps.  I remember sending my resumes to every foreign language coordinator in Rockland County hoping that one of the districts may have an opening for a Spanish and Italian certified teacher with four years of experience in the NYC school system.  Not one person got back to me except for Jeannie. Jeannie was another person who exuded class and professionalism. She certainly helped to guide me through my four years at NRHS. What a place to be for a young supercharged newbie like me.  It wasn’t long before Jeannie nudged me to become part of committees and activities so I could expand my horizons beyond the foreign language workroom office. This is where I met the brilliant Lisa Sambora-Chase.

What can I say about Lisa except for that she knew a little about everything. A well respected math teacher among colleagues and students alike, Lisa was like an amazing gem at NR.  She helped guide me through my first few observations at NR. Even though she didn’t teacher Spanish, she knew how to teach. Period. I learned so much from this amazing woman, first as a teacher and then later on as an assistant principal and principal.  Her knowledge and her intuition to guide others were like none other. I miss my daily interaction with these three women. They were integral in the development of the professional that I have become.

As a middle school AP, I worked with three amazing principals for ten years. I thought I’d be a career AP and was totally cool with it because I loved my job. For whatever reason, I tend to call it “fate”, I landed at an elementary school of all places as a principal. At the time I had twin three year olds at home and thought “What the heck?, I might as well live around little people all day and all night”.

Let me just put it out there now.  I KNEW NOTHING ABOUT ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS.

So, I decided that I’d better learn quickly. Ten years into this elementary gig, and loving it more than anything else I have ever done, I feel like I owe so much of it to the most compassionate group of educators I have ever met.  I want to call out all of them, many of whom I still work with every day and who have become my family, but I have to say that Robin Ackerman was the person who got me through my first tumultuous years as an inexperienced elementary school principal.

As a reading teacher, Robin taught out of the office right next to mine at North Garnerville Elementary School. I didn’t have an assistant principal since NGES was a tiny little school.  So I did it all, but relied on many others for help. One person who was always there for me was Robin. I don’t think I would have made it without her guidance and support.

After 28 years in the field as a teacher, AP and Principal, I was approached by my current mentor Dr. Felicello.  “Would you mind mentoring a new principal coming on board”. I was like, “me? A mentor? I’m still learning myself; what do I have to offer? What if I screw things up?”

A million reasons why I shouldn’t be someone’s mentor crossed my mind. Then I thought of all of the great people who I “followed” before “following people” was all the twitter rage.  I reflected and asked what was it that made me gravitate to them? Could I be that for someone else? The answer was YES. I could.

For me as a teacher and an educational leader, building and maintaining strong relationships with those I work with (students, staff, and families) has been a key to my success.  I also tend to rely on the advice that my parents always gave me. They said surround yourself with intelligent, sincere people. You will be better because of the people that you choose to associate with. I guess my parents were my first mentors afterall!

So, all throughout my career, I surrounded myself with the most intelligent, sincere, and positive people ever. The difference in Dr. Felicello and all of my other mentors was that these leaders and mentors have one thing in common. Not only are they smart, they want others to be smart as well, so they create a culture where learning is natural, open and shared.

“Leadership comes down to taking care of the people in your organization and making them the best they can be, not giving up on them and never failing to be there for them”. – Pete Carroll

When I asked questions, my mentors helped guide me to solve my own problems. When I asked for advice, the opinions were honest and sincere.  When I needed a shoulder to cry on, each one of them were there for me like a rock and had kleenex. So I said, “yes! Of course I’ll be a mentor!”

I hope that I’m being a good one for my friend and colleague as those who were and still are there for me. Let’s just say that I had strong examples and can hope that a little bit of each one of my mentors wore off on me.

So hats off to all official and unofficial mentors out there! Like a teacher, you never know where and how your actions will influence others.  It may be now, or it may be way in the future, but know that you make a difference. #beamentor

About Mary Esposito

Mary Esposito is a veteran educator who has served as a Spanish teacher for eight years in the DOE and North Rockland before accepting a position as a Middle School Assistant Principal in the newly opening Willow Grove Middle School. She was the rock who kept the building running smoothly and allowed it to flourish. After 10 years at Willow Grove, she decided it was time to take the plunge and became an Elementary Principal a position she has held in the North Rockland Central School District for the past ten years.  

Mary is a master educator who is always looking to improve herself and her school. She is revered by her staff and respected by all in the North Rockland School District.  She loves her job and the work she does, but all of that is a distant second to the love for her family: her twin daughters, Emily and Anna, and her husband of 28 years Tony.  

This “Girl from Queens” is determined to make schools a better place for kids by inspiring other educators to think outside of the box and her relentless, never quite attitude is making her goal reality. The Teacher and The Admin is honored to work with Principal Esposito and to publish her first piece.