Saturday, September 6, 2014

What Does a Good Mentor Do?

Today's topic is mentorship. Specifically, what a good mentor does. This question comes at a good time. My co-teacher and I just took on  several peer mentors and we are in the midst of figuring out their roles. We are very excited to have former students serve as mentors; they will be able to model skills and behaviors that my colleague and I won't be able to from our "lofty positions". But how will our mentors do? What habits of mind and practice should they develop? Here are four initial ideas I have about what good mentorship. Over the course of the semester, I hope that we can specify, amplify, and extend this initial exploration. 

Show, don't Tell! Good mentor don't over-explain. They work alongside students, demonstrating how to approach and solve problems. A good mentor doesn't have to know the answers or even how to solve every problem. Rather, she will show mentees her own process for meetings obstacles. When a mentee gets stuck, an effective mentor may do a little bit of explaining but will spend more energy standing beside the mentee, working through the problem together. Sure, mentors offer suggestions, but the best mentors supplement those suggestions by demonstrating actual behaviors students can emulate and modify for their own situations. Mentors "act" like exemplary students, a role model to emulate rather than some guru to follow. The mentor doesn't do the work for the mentee; she demonstrates by example. 


Be Real! A good mentor is genuine and authentic. Many first-year college students struggle seeing themselves as writers and scholars. How am I supposed to talk? Will I fit in? Is there some secret handshake I need to learn to be part of a scholarly community? That's not even considering questions about insecurity. A good mentor demonstrates how to be true to herself AND a scholar at the same time.A good mentor lives that balancing act, that transition from wanting to be a college scholar to actually living like one. The mentors' "realness" show newbies that it's possible to stay true to yourself and to meet the qualifications of being collegiate. 

Let Go! Good mentors, like good teachers, realize they must "release" mentees from their guidance. Explanation can be awesome. Demonstration and modeling? Even better! But ultimately, we have to "release" - allot the mentee to stand, however precariously, on her own feet. This way, the success she experiences will be hers. And any mistakes she makes, if she's in class that respects importance of learning from errors, will compel her to engage her grit and resilience. I admit that I have had trouble letting go. But I've seen that failing to release students to do their own learning keeps them from enjoying the fruits of their intellectual labor, of feeling burn of their learning. Worse, I risk creating dependency relationships. 


Be Wrong! Good mentors show mentees that making mistakes is a part of the learning process. Most students, I've found, are kinesthetic learners - acquiring skill through direct practice. This is especially true with  writing. Most of us learn best from getting our hands dirty and making mistakes - the trial and error process.  A necessary precondition, then, is for students is to welcome mistakes, be resilient, and remain persistent. Good mentors show their charges positive ways to process mistakes. to see mistakes as an important step to deep learning (vs. memorization). When mentors, myself included, model resilience, persistence, grit, and  the value of making mistakes, we give students an important life lesson that transcends a particular class or discipline. There's nothing like seeing the pleasure of someone working through their errors and finding their own answers. 


I know this list is incomplete. But it is a start! I'm looking forward to mentoring the peer mentors in my class. Let's see if i can practice what I preach! Let's see how much more effective the learning will be with peers in the mix. Anyone else work with peers in their classrooms? Share below - tell me what I'm missing and what I might anticipate.