Contemporary issues in mentoring

Written by: Brian Gay

The use of mentoring in the field of teacher education and development, as currently practised, raises issues around the areas of development and standards and the role of the established teacher as not only mentor but also as assessor of the classroom practice of developing teachers.  Four main areas will be considered, what is mentoring?, can anyone mentor?, why do we mentor? and, how can mentors know what they know?

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What is mentoring.

From the early 1970’s an interesting conjunction began to emerge involving humanistic psychology, learning theory and organisational development. Increasingly, issues around human development, the development of “potential” and the translation of potential into effective behaviour were being addressed. Some of us who were involved in the field of human resource development were experimenting with one to one development of employees, mainly graduate management trainees, but did not have a either clear conceptual framework within which to locate our activities or a specific name to give to those activities. Then in 1978 a book appeared, the culmination of a longitudinal study of 10 years into the practice of career development in the United States. This seminal book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life ( D. Levinson et al 1978 ), gave us a name, Mentoring, and an operating definition that was critical to our thinking;

“The mentor relationship is one of the most complex and developmentally important a man can have in early adulthood. The mentor is ordinarily several years older, a person of greater experience and seniority in the world the young man is entering. No word currently in use is adequate to convey the nature of the relationship we have in mind here. Words such as “counsellor” or  “guru” suggest some of the more subtle meanings but they have other connotations that would be misleading. The term “mentor” is generally used in a narrower sense to mean teacher, advisor and sponsor. As we use the term, it means all these things and more.”

Mentoring is of course neither new nor American in origin. If we look into the mists of Celtic history/mythology we find Merlin, a figure of legend. It was he that showed Arthur the responsibilities and obligations of kingship and helped to prepare him for, and guide him in, that demanding role. Later in factual history we see the role of the “anamchara”, the spiritual friend of the young monastic in the Celtic Church. Here an older monk was the “friend” of another, yet like Merlin, was outside the formal authority structure of the organisation within which they were located. I said earlier a younger monastic, and it is worth noting that even the abbot of the monastery had an anamchara, a spiritual friend in whom he could confide in confidence. Outside the formal structure, operating beyond judgementalism!

If we ask mentors today just what it is that they see themselves as doing in their relationship with a mentor certain key words come to the fore;

  • Exploring
  • Revealing
  • Guiding
  • Advising
  • Teaching
  • Coaching
  • Training
  • Directing

As we move down the list we notice that the nature of the relationship changes from one of a more equal power sharing position, of a learning partnership, to one in which the power shifts increasingly to the mentor and from the mentee. The freedom to jointly explore moves incrementally to increasing constraint upon the relationship. Discovery is less and less the objective, “covering the ground” is more and more the goal. This new source of power and authority can lie in the syllabus, that has to be covered, and the assessment requirements that have to be fulfilled. Development is now subordinated to standard. Whilst individuals more grow greatly as a consequence of the mentoring relationship will they actually attain the standard for professional practice? If the mentor has an assessment role in this process of professional development will the mentee really be open and trusting in there exchanges with the mentor. Can we expect our learning partners to really explore their fears and hopes with us, if we are now not complementary to the mainstream structure but an integral  part of it ? To return to the monastic model the anamchara has now become the novice master, complete with disciplinary role. There is lesson here for the teacher as mentor and as assessor.

So the one to one, confidential, learning partners model is increasingly subject to modification in the light of institutional and professional requirements and the pressures of funding. Of course standards are important, but the freedom to move up and down our mentoring range according to mentee need is being increasingly restricted. Mentoring is at risk of becoming coaching and only coaching.

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Can anybody mentor?

We have already raised the issue of a prospective mentor’s location in the assessment process as a matter that needs further investigation, however there are some major personal attributes that mentors require that may not be part of our personal armoury of interpersonal skills. The most informative description of the attributes of the effective mentor that I have come across is recorded in V.I.Armstrong’s book, I Have Spoken, American History Through the Voices of the Indians.(1971). Here the great chief Dekanawidah, is recorded, in 1720, as having sworn in the new rulers of the confederation of the five nations with the following words;

“We do now crown you with the sacred emblem of the antlers, the sign of your lordship. You shall now become a mentor of the people of the five nations. The thickness of your skin will be seven spans, for you will be proof against anger, offensive action and criticism, with endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with compassion for your people. Neither anger nor fear shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be tempered with calm deliberation. In all your official acts, self interest shall be cast aside. You shall look and listen to the welfare of the whole people, and always have in view, not only the present but also the coming generations-the unborn of the future generations.”

So how do we measure up to this benchmark of personal characteristics ? Are we thick skinned against criticism and anger, yet sensitive to the needs of others ? Are we patient and compassionate? What about our anger and fear, and our capacity to manage anger and fear ? Are we comfortable to be challenged ? What of our self interest- do we really see our mentoring as an investment in the future of our society and for the betterment of the common good? So many issues. Clearly mentor training is essential, not just desirable, if we are to explore our relationship with the necessary professional and interpersonal skills that mentoring demands. It may well be that we do not have, and cannot develop that range of required abilities. So be it, we are not mentor material. Not all can be mentors. That is not “bad”, it is just as it is.

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Why do we mentor ?

Well if Dekanawidah is right in his analysis and mentors need to possess a long term view of development, and a wide social perspective it implies a belief in the worth of what is being done, the inherent worth of people and the value of developing each to realise their potential. Mentoring is a powerful  development process that looks to us to create relationships that allow individuals, including ourselves, to grow. It may well be that we mentor because for us, this is the contribution we believe we can make to make a difference in both the life of the developing teacher and also to the lives of all those students that the developing teacher will themself teach and develop in the future.

A 10th century Chinese Buddhist abbot named Gaoan of Yunju wrote on one occasion to Commander Lee of the army about students, and in this context we are all both students and teachers;

“There are no wise and foolish students-it is just a matter of the teacher refining them to bring out virtuous actions in them, testing them to discover their potential abilities, bringing them out and encouraging them, to give weight to their words, taking care of them to make their practice complete.

Over long months and years, the name and reality will both grow rich.

All people have the spirit, it is just a matter of careful guidance. It is just like jade in the matrix, if you throw it away it is rock, but if you cut and polish it, it is a gem. It is also like water issuing from a spring; block it up and it makes a bog, open up a deep channel for it and it becomes a river.

Therefore we know of the abilities of students and the ups and downs of the times, that they will peak if treated well, be exalted if encouraged, decline if oppressed, and die out if denied. This is the basis of the dissipation or development of students.”

(T. Cleary, Zen Lessons in the Art of Leadership, 1989)

Combining our values our knowledge and expertise we too polish rocks and dig ditches.

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How can we know what we know?

Finally we need to reflect upon our practice as professionals if we are to understand the foundation for our mentoring practice. It is here in the heat of our mentor training that the power of the reflective personal journal comes to the fore. We need to explore what we have learned, how we have learned that, what we have learned about learning in the process of learning and what we have learned about ourselves in that process.

As was said 2500 years ago;

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not: he is a fool-shun him.

He who knows not and knows that he knows not: he is simple-teach him.

He who knows and knows not that he knows: he is asleep-wake him.

He who knows and knows that he knows: he is wise-follow him.

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