Mentoring: The Best Teachers Are Students

All Things Paw

By Michelle Knowles

I truly owe my career to a lady named Phyllis Stansberry. You may not know who she is, as she didn’t win any awards or go to grooming expos…or even know how to do show dogs. Yet, she is the pivotal person who started me on the path to where I am today.  

Ms. Phyllis owned a small, immaculate, four–table shop in Southport, Indiana and had built a solid and reliable clientele that had paid for her mortgage, put her two children through college and ultimately paid for her retirement. While she was at it, she also trained some of the best groomers I have ever known, providing them with a trade and keeping them employed until it was time to move on to their next adventure. 

I can remember telling her, after a hard day of grooming, that this was only a steppingstone for me, and I was not going to be grooming forever. She then said something I will never forget: “Pay attention to what you learn here and to what the dogs are telling you so that you can be prepared for whatever comes your way”. 

I thought about what she said for a week, obsessing over what it meant. So, I actually started to pay attention to every single thing that she did; how she washed, how she poured her products, how she talked to her clients, and how she engaged the dogs and cats that came into the shop. 

I was bathing a Husky, one of my first ever, and she told me to make sure that I rinsed it in cool water so the hair would release. I asked her why this was so, and she said I don’t really know but it does. Without either one of us knowing, we both went home and researched the subject and came up with some answers. Cool water rinses help to close and smooth the cuticle of the hair which helps the loose shafts slide out of the coat easier. We laughed and went on about our day. 

It always impressed me that she was not afraid to make mistakes, or not know something, because when I stumped her, she would admit to not knowing but have an answer for me as soon as she could find one. Make no mistake—she had clear expectations of what my duties were and expected me to live up to her standards—but she never yelled, or blamed, and was always ready to help if you needed it. 

I have hundreds of people to be grateful for while learning my trade, many of them mentors, some of them for just a snippet of information that led me to the next question, and a large portion of them were, and still are, students. No one will test you like a student that is hungry for information, soaking up as much as you can give and demanding to know things you haven’t even thought about yet. Many times, I have had to tell them that I don’t have an answer, but I make sure and find one if it is available to find. 

Teaching, mentoring and apprenticeships have been the backbone of this industry for a long time. Back in the day, grooming schools were few, but the desire to groom animals was strong. I have heard colleagues lament over the fact that helping beginners was too hard and they prefer employees with experience. While this is necessary for running a business, I know also that in refusing to give a newbie a try, we may be missing a diamond in the rough. 

I have a rule of three: If they show interest, show up on time and give me their best, I will always continue to give them a chance. Many people took chances on me and I repay that trust as many times as I can. 

The more I teach, the more I learn. There will always be new techniques, new products and new styles to try. Being open to the questions of the student will help you see past your ingrained beliefs and habits and help you become a better teacher for the next group of fresh–faced groomers, eager to soak up everything grooming–related. 

I have many to thank on my journey to becoming a pet professional, but it really did start with Ms. Phyllis. And I will never forget the important things that she taught me; some of those lessons were simply life lessons. Loving to learn and being open to change will open doors you never even knew were there. We are all students; we are all also teachers. The best teachers are also students. 

So here I am, on the same steppingstone, hoping that I can pass on what I know before my time is done. Thank you, Ms. Phyllis. ✂️