When I reflect on the practice of mentorship and the many people whom have mentored me over my career, one person in particular comes to mind.
I met and worked with Mark D. Wagner while he was the Director of Education at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in 2005.
I like to make the joke that I am the person Mark hired the most times over his long and noted career in Environmental and Historical Education.
Seven years later, Mark has retired and I now serve as the Curator of Conservation Programming at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium where I represent us in many local, regional and national partnerships and networks focusing on our Community and Conservation Advocacy, Research, and Community Based Conservation Engagement efforts.
To me, a mentor is a person who trusts, supports and finds ways for others to accomplish their goals, encourages experimentation, values autonomy, and uses failure as an opportunity to teach.
Mark trusted me and encouraged autonomy and experimentation.
I will never forget the time that Mark asked me to lead a boat launch demonstration as a first year intern knowing full well that I had never done this before. The first one did not go well. I forgot dates, facts, and I kept it short, apologizing to the guests multiple times. Little experiences like this however, can and do teach resilience. I was right back up on that stage two hours later and this time, it was awesome!
Mark always wants others to succeed.
Marks greatest pride every year was sharing the teacher evaluations of the Educators with the rest of the Department Heads and Managers. Mark always seemed most happy at work when he watched others successfully leading education programs or when he was leading one himself.
When I failed or made mistakes Mark used these experiences as learning opportunities.
What I mean by learning opportunities is that he allowed me the time and space to identify where I went wrong, and for me to work with others in the organization to identify solutions. Mark did now always have the answer, or feel the need to share his opinion or tell you how to do things. His leadership in way has made me a grittier person.
Mark and I did not always see eye to eye, sometimes butting heads. I was not always the most tactful person. We respected each other however, and that has allowed us to work together and grow throughout the years.
During a period of transition years ago. My voice became louder with leadership and this went to my head. I took advantage of Mark’s trust, his desire to see others succeed, and his leadership style because I liked the attention I was receiving from others in the organization. After years of Marks mentorship, I failed him. In true Mark fashion however, he was patient and he allowed time for me to come to the realization that I had gone a bit too far. We had candid conversations and I became a bigger person and better person as a result.
Mark D. Wagner is my mentor and the reason I too value mentorship.
I mentor from a place of mutual respect, experimentation, engagement (I want to know the people I work with), and fun. In my field, work is fun and when it is no longer fun, it’s time to find new work.
If I can pass the torch to the next generation of conservation leaders in a similar way that Mark passed on the torch to me, then I had one hell of a career!