Mentoring Philosophy

Throughout my academic career, I have been fortunate enough to benefit from the guidance of some truly excellent mentors.  One of these was a professor fondly referred to by the entire student body as Dr. Gee.  She is one of those individuals who helped me develop my skills and grew my confidence, encouraging me to pursue my education to higher levels and lending a consoling pair of ears and constructive advice on how I might succeed along my chosen path.  Recently, during a conversation, Dr. Gee mentioned to me:  “I always love hearing from you, Meredith.  You have such a unique perspective on things.  I learn so much from you.”  And I…was gob smacked.

Somehow, in all the years I was complacently soaking up all this help and guidance from Dr. Gee and my other mentors, it had never occurred to me to consider how these individuals on whom I’d grown to depend actually went about the process of mentoring me.  And I certainly never conceived such a radical notion as the thought that perhaps I might be having an impact on them as well.

Mentoring is often conceived of in this one-way fashion, conjuring images of a wizened professor in his office, offering up pearls of wisdom to the grateful supplicant.  However, a careful study of the scholarship of mentoring, as well as my own personal experiences as a novice mentor, show that this stereotype, while conventional, is simply untrue.  True mentorship is a two-way, dynamic relationship between the mentor and the mentee that, when successful, allows both partners to learn more about themselves and refine skills suitable for their respective positions in life.[1]

According to Kram[2], these types of dynamic mentoring relationships will change over time, moving through 4 phases: Initiation, Cultivation, Separation, and Redefinition.  In the initiation phase, the mentee and mentor both typically have initial positive expectations of each other and their relationship, which can border on fantasy.  During cultivation, those expectations are pitted against real world challenges and projects.  When proper psychosocial support is provided, the mentor/mentee bond will be strengthened during this period, reaching a peak.  After a certain amount a time, the relationship moves into the latter two stages, with either mentor or mentee moving into a new situation or choosing to otherwise end the relationship.  In many cases, mentoring relationships that reach the redefinition stage may be reformatted into a friendship.  Kram’s stages present a road map which gradually allows the mentee to experience more independence and self-direction throughout the relationship.  The mentor, in return, has the satisfaction of seeing the mentee succeed and can develop their coaching skills to promote such self-direction.

I recently experienced my first full journey through Kram’s stages.  Two undergraduate research students who had worked in my research lab since their freshman year graduated with honors.  Both these young women came into the lab happy to be guided in research every step of the way, anxious to look to me for direction (Initiation).  Over the years, however, they began to become more comfortable in their skills and to develop their own research ideas and questions.  They also had to face the reality that I, as a busy graduate student, could not always meet at a moment’s notice to help them meet a deadline.  We all learned the importance of setting clear expectation and keeping clear lines of communication (Cultivation).  Now, they have both left the institution and are pursuing their goals elsewhere (Separation).  However, they have both expressed a desire to keep in touch and to continue to ask my advice about things as we continue on in life (Redefinition).

While Kram’s stages work well for formal mentorship, informal mentorship can be a little trickier to outline.  As an instructor, I often find myself acting as an informal mentor for perhaps 200 lower level undergraduate students for a semester or two at a time.  I feel that this is still a great opportunity for mentorship that should be explored.  Perhaps the greatest effect that can be had in the informal, classroom mentoring setting is to encourage development of a growth mindset.  According to Dweck[3], an individual with a growth mindset sees ability as something that can be changed and therefore views challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow.  An individual with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, is likely to avoid challenges because they see abilities and potential as fixed and would view failure as a reflection on themselves.  A lot of the students I teach appear to be very strongly in the fixed mindset frame of mind.  They believe in one right answer, they want me to tell them what it is, and they become very upset if they feel in risk of failure, even temporary failure.  A great opportunity to provide mentorship in the classroom then, is to educate about fixed vs. growth mindset and then to structure classroom activities in ways that actively encourage and reward growth mindset.

Another challenge for mentoring in the classroom setting is how exactly to define learning for the purposes of mentoring.  Adult learners have unique needs that need to be considered.  Knowles[4] described the difference between pedagogy and andragogy.  Pedagogy, most commonly described in education, is more appropriate for younger learners, and relies more heavily on guided instruction.  Andragogy, on the other hand, allows for more self-direction, emphasizes to the learner why certain activities are being undertaken, takes more advantage of intrinsic motivation, and allows more room to consider the learner’s individual history and goals.  Unsurprisingly, adult learners prefer andragogical instruction techniques.  The question, then, is what should we consider an adult learner?

By legal definitions, the students that I teach and mentor are adult learners.  However, as a developmental psychologist, I know that the ages of 18 to 25 are a unique period, known as emerging adulthood, that’s full of its own unique cognitive, social, and biological challenges.  I need to consider whether the andragogical techniques for adult learning proposed by Knowles would be as efficient for my psychology 101 students and undergraduate research assistant mentees.  Or could I best serve them by still relying on pedagogy?  Or do I need to cobble together some sort of mixture?  At the end of the day, I feel as if this age group, like any, would probably be best served by considering the needs, goals, and experiences of its members.  This is true in mentoring as it is in teaching.

In conclusion, mentoring relationships have the potential to be highly influential for both the mentee and mentor.  As I continue to grow into a mentor, I will focus on encouraging my future mentees to develop their growth mindsets and professional skills by setting clear expectations, maintaining clear communication, and employing a combining of pedagogy and andragogy that reflects the mentees personal history and goals.  I can’t wait to see what they will teach me in return.

 

[1] Zachary, L. J. (2012). The mentor’s guide: Facilitating effective learning relationships (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

[2] Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26(4), 608-625.

[3] Dweck, C.S. (2016). The remarkable reach of growth mindsets. Scientific American, 27(1), 36-41.

[4] Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Boston: Elseiver.

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