What difference does it make? — Mentoring
Monday, October 01, 2018
In a series of articles, we’ll examine the clear distinctions among mentor, coach, and buddy; why the terms are not interchangeable; why using the terms interchangeably causes confusion at best and disgruntlement and dissatisfaction at worst; the role mentors, coaches, and buddies play in induction programs; how new employees can address the challenges they face during their adjustment period; how to assess what type of program or programs your organization or institution needs; and examples of successful programs you can choose to implement or adapt.
In an effort to do the right thing, organizational administrators often hastily create "mentoring" programs that are anything but.
Mentoring is a commonly used term, especially in education, but too often it is incorrectly used because its origins and meanings are unknown or misunderstood. Without a solid understanding of the history and evolution of mentoring, programs that cast themselves as mentoring ones, but are not, create more problems than they intend to avert or solve.
I’ve worked in organizations in which, prior to beginning my position, I was told I’d have a mentor, which led me to believe that the organization had a formal mentoring program only to find that there was no program at all: instead, there was only someone tasked with being my "mentor," one who had no knowledge of the history or meaning of or training in mentoring.
One of those who was charged with being my mentor was 23 years my junior, which means she would have been four when I began my teaching career. At the least, she lacked the most basic characteristic of being a mentor, that of being a "wise [...] elder."
Moreover, she had no mentoring training, was involved in so many work assignments and personal activities (she talked a lot and told me a lot) that she had little time to offer me, and her intuition, if that is what she relied on, was, frankly, awful. I found that she spoke much too quickly, offered too much information at once, was easily annoyed, often said, "I told you that," replied to my small victories not with positive reinforcement but with stories about what she would have done and how successful she was, and more than once, took the computer mouse out of my hand, asked me to move aside, and performed the steps I was asking about, which meant I learned nothing.
Even if she were not trained as a mentor, she had been trained as a teacher, and I daily wondered with incredulity how anyone with teacher training could be so wildly inept as a mentor.
As if to satisfy herself that she was indeed meeting her mentor role, she regularly and rotely said, "Feel free to ask me any questions." I often had no idea what questions to ask: I was overwhelmed. I quickly realized I could not count on her and reached out to a variety of other faculty who I identified as having both the knowledge I needed and the requisite temperament to assist me.
During my first semester, she and a course coordinator asked to meet with me. I didn’t know the agenda until the moment the meeting began, but I had decided beforehand that I would use the opportunity to offer observations, insights, and examples of successful new employee induction programs.
New, keep in mind, does not necessarily mean new to the profession. At the meeting, I shared my knowledge and examples — hard copies of induction programs, a couple readings on best practices in new employee induction, and a bibliography of additional resources — and offered to help craft a successful program.
She quickly noted that she had volunteered for the role of mentor and was receiving no remuneration, then flicked the papers and exasperatedly snapped, "Debra, this feels like homework!" My worst suspicions about her as a mentor were confirmed.
Later in the semester, she convened a meeting of new faculty and those who had participated in new faculty orientation or were serving as "mentors." Ostensibly, she wanted new faculty feedback to use for improving the new faculty orientation process.
When it was my time to contribute, I thanked everyone involved and tried again to share the knowledge and examples I previously attempted to share, telling the group that I had resources that I’d be happy to send via email attachments and again offering to help work on a successful induction program.
Group members expressed interest, so after the meeting, I emailed the resources. My "mentor" quickly "replied to all" with a note saying she had the resources on her reading list. Whether she ever read the resources I don’t know, because although she was assigned to be my mentor for my first year, she left her job after my first semester, and I was not assigned another "mentor."
The strained job adjustment period caused problems down the road: at the second semester’s conclusion, I thoroughly erred in preparing an essential step in the grading report process, an error that took a week to rectify. I was called to task for my error by the same person who had chosen and assigned me my “mentor” and who did not assign me another one in her absence.
At another job, the person appointed as my mentor was my generational contemporary and the head of my hiring committee. She quit her job six weeks after I began, a decision she had made even before she hired me.
I learned of her decision and the details behind it on my first day of work when someone mentioned it in passing conversation. Imagine my surprise and dismay. When she left, no one replaced her as my "mentor."
My initial surprise became frustration, and I began to question the professionalism of my employer. It was a necessary question. I soon learned that employees in all functions — faculty, staff, director — had been quitting regularly, continued to do so throughout my time there, and they continue to do so even now.
Some employees were there for so brief a time that many others didn’t even know who they were when they left. It became a standing joke that the “farewell” email the director would send when yet another employee was leaving was a template and nothing more than the leaving employee’s name had to be filled in.
Colley observes that while mentoring is the "in" thing, "This surge forward in the phenomenon has not, [...] been matched by similar progress in its conceptualisation."
Mentor is a prominent character in Homer’s "Odyssey," which dates to 800 B.C.E. Odysseus (Ulysses), King of Ithaca, put his infant son, Telemachus, and his wife, Penelope, in the care of Mentor, Odysseus’s dear friend, so Odysseus could battle in the Trojan War.
Following the war, Odysseus faced trials and tribulations while wandering for a decade before finally returning home. In Odysseus’s 20-year absence, Mentor "was responsible not only for [Telemachus’s] education, but for the shaping of his character, the wisdom of his decisions, and the clarity and steadfastness of his purpose."
Some literary scholars suggest that because Athena, the eminent Greek goddess of good counsel and practical insight, often transformed herself into Mentor, particularly when Telemachus faced unusual difficulties, Athena brought a spiritual element to mentoring.Shea observes that, "Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person."
Colley elaborates, "[Mentor] is referred to as a wise and kindly elder, a surrogate parent, a trusted adviser, an educator and guide. His role is described variously as nurturing, supporting, protecting, role modelling, and possessing a visionary perception of his ward's true potential."
In the personal "mentoring" situations to which I refer, I did not trust either "mentor," neither was a friend nor trusted advisor, and certainly neither was a wise person. Trust, as I learned many years ago, is not good behavior; it is predictability.
I found quickly that the only predictable characteristic of my “mentors” was their utter unpreparedness for being authentic mentors. Trust is also earned; it is not a given, akin to a given in a mathematical equation. Trust between mentor and protégé cannot be presumed simply because an administrator creates such a relationship.
In fact, administrators should have nothing to do with establishing mentor-protégé relationships; it is one of the many misconceptions of the terms and misapplications of their use. Furthermore, as one whose parents were present and powerful forces and as one who had been teaching for decades when I was assigned these mentors, I certainly did not need a surrogate parent.
Regardless of the complete mismatched and forced pairings I found myself in, viable mentoring programs do exist, especially in medical schools. However, some critics point to the fact that historically, traditional mentoring has created a hierarchy, fixing the mentor in a superior role, which diminishes the protégé, reducing the protégé to a subservient role.
Critics also point to gender bias and patronizing (these days, protégé is frequently called by the unfortunate term, "mentee," which conjures images of a chewy mint of a similar name). Critics "seek to challenge a dominant concept of mentoring that they identify as hierarchical and/or directive, based on assumptions of paternalism and models of male development." (Also see slides 13-14 and 17-18: https://www.slideshare.net/AmyPrunuske/mentor-presentation-22749511)
Schools came late to mentoring. Although mentor and its associations have a long history (think Socrates and Plato), it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the term mentoring entered American print in the form of "Mentoria: The Young Ladies Instructor or The Young Ladies Instructor in Familiar Conversations on Moral and Entertaining Subjects," a book by Ann Murry.
Soon, there was a book for young men, "The Immortal Mentor," by Rev. Weems, which was followed by a variety of mentoring books for young women and young men. The first attempt to provide teachers with a mentoring guide came in 1894, with the publication of the journal, "The Teacher’s Mentor."
The Big Brothers Organization (later Big Brothers Big Sisters), established by Ernest Coulter in New York City in 1904, formally began mentoring: Adult male volunteers would each "befriend one boy" who was in legal trouble and serve as positive role models, "Mentors [...] form a supportive friendship with the youths, as opposed to modifying the youth’s behavior or character."
Finally, 69 years after Big Brothers was established using the mentor model, the education journal, Research and Review, published a paper about mentoring. Five years later, in 1978, MIT’s Sloan Management Review published a paper about women having mentors. "For certain, since the birth of the term, mentoring, it had come of age as a part of the language by the mid-1980s and has continued to be integrated in professional literature into the twenty-first century."
In the 45 years that educators, education researchers, and education administrators have examined and implemented mentoring programs, the perspectives on using mentoring have changed. In some programs, the traditional mentoring paradigm situating the wise, paternalistic (or maternalistic) elder above the unwitting neophyte has been replaced or has been revised, "Mentoring has shifted from a focus on senior professionals advising junior professionals to professionals at any level identifying their own needs and reaching out to gain assistance with them."
Collaborative professional development learning and collaborative professional development networks are some approaches that are replacing traditional mentoring programs. In collaborative professional development learning and collaborative professional development networks, the one who needs information or help defines their need and reaches out to those who can meet their need. There is no hierarchy, and the person in need has the independence to choose to whom they will reach out.
Scientific research bears out the success of having a diverse professional network, "Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups. The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving."
Even those who are proponents of more typical mentoring approaches concede that change is necessary: There must be "cooperative supportive and trusting environments" in which "mentoring is an active relationship [...] and it is not the mentor’s role to dominate, judge and be overly critical." Such a change in the paradigm also allows the mentor to be critically self-reflective, and that critical self-reflection nurtures the mentor’s development, which in turn informs the protégé’s development.
As you consider the professional development approach(es) your institution uses, ask yourself: What do I know about the history, meaning, and intent of mentoring? Does my organization — do I — carelessly misuse mentoring because we lack comprehensive understanding of its history, its meaning, and its intent?
What do I know about the evolution of mentoring? Does mentoring — in whole or in part — suit the needs of my organization? Is it time to reconsider how my organization approaches professional development?
Upon ongoing and critical self-reflection and research, I learned what I could have and should have done to minimize, if not avoid, the problems I encountered so that I could have had productive and meaningful adjustment periods. As we consider other professional development approaches, we will explore problem-solving techniques.
As we’ve seen, mentoring, in its varied forms, is one approach to professional development. In my next article, we’ll examine the role coaching plays and can play in successful professional development.
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