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Mentors and Mentoring: What are we talking about?"

Posted by Vern Edwards, 09 December 2008 · 751 views

In my last post I used the terms ?mentor? and ?mentoring.? I tell my students that when they use a word or term they must make sure that they know what it means and what they mean by it. Well, what?s good for the student is good for the teacher. As I read my own post I asked myself: What do I mean by mentor and mentoring? What does a mentor do? How does he or she do it?

The word mentor comes from Homer?s Odyssey. Mentor is the name of an old friend of Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus), the King of Ithaca, who has been away from home for 20 years, fighting at Troy and wandering the world, trying to get home. Ulysses?s wife, Penelope, and young son, Telemachus, are besieged by men who think Ulysses is dead and who want to marry Penelope and assume the throne. When Ulysses left for the Trojan War, he asked Mentor to guide his son while he was away. When Prince Telemachus decides to search for his father and prays for advice, Minerva (the Roman name for Athena, the goddess of wisdom), disguises herself as Mentor and gives this advice, as stated in the prose translation by Samuel Butler:

?As he thus prayed, Minerva came close up to him in the likeness and with the voice of Mentor. ?Telemachus,? said she, ?if you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool nor coward henceforward, for Ulysses never broke his word nor left his work half done. If, then, you take after him, your voyage will not be fruitless, but unless you have the blood of Ulysses and of Penelope in your veins I see no likelihood of your succeeding. Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse, not better; still, as you are not going to be either fool or coward henceforward, and are not entirely without some share of your father's wise discernment, I look with hope upon your undertaking. But mind you never make common cause with any of those foolish suitors, for they have neither sense nor virtue, and give no thought to death and to the doom that will shortly fall on one and all of them, so that they shall perish on the same day. As for your voyage, it shall not be long delayed; your father was such an old friend of mine that I will find you a ship, and will come with you myself. Now, however, return home, and go about among the suitors; begin getting provisions ready for your voyage; see everything well stowed, the wine in jars, and the barley meal, which is the staff of life, in leathern bags, while I go round the town and beat up volunteers at once. There are many ships in Ithaca both old and new; I will run my eye over them for you and will choose the best; we will get her ready and will put out to sea without delay.?

?Thus spoke Minerva daughter of Jove [Zeus], and Telemachus lost no time in doing as the goddess told him.?

There is an extensive literature about mentoring in business, including both popular and scholarly books and articles. So you can find Coaching and Mentoring for Dummies, by Marty Brounstein (2000) and ?Toward A Conceptualization of Mentoring,? by Anderson and Shannon, in Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 38-42 (1988), and many more.

Although some authorities use the terms mentoring and coaching synonymously, others make a distinction between them, perhaps the most common being that a coach is usually also a boss while a mentor is a senior colleague without supervisory responsibility. A coach is interested in the prot?g? (also called the apprentice? or the ?mentee?) as part of the team, while the mentor is interested in the prot?g? as an individual. In both cases the objective is to help the prot?g? to develop as a professional. It appears that the mentor-prot?g? relationship is presumed to be more personal than the coach-prot?g? relationship. For an interesting discussion about the debate over differences between mentoring and coaching, see Coaching and Mentoring: Practical Methods to Improve Learning, by Parsloe and Wray (2000).

It appears that a mentoring approach might be more Socratic in nature than a coaching approach. Coaching may be more instructive or even directive. A mentor might not tell a prot?g? what to do or how to do it, preferring instead to prompt the prot?g? to learn by thinking and researching. If a prot?g? went to a mentor with a question like: ?How do I choose the evaluation factors to include in a source selection plan?? or ?What evaluation factors should I include in the source selection plan?? a mentor might respond with a series of questions designed to provoke thought. ?Let?s think this through: Let?s begin by asking ourselves: ?What do we mean by value?? What is evaluation?? ?What, exactly, are you going to evaluate?? ?So, what is an evaluation factor?? And so forth. In the face of a prot?g??s mistake, a mentor might prompt the prot?g? to analyze what happened and to figure out why it was a mistake of fact or judgment.

Some young people may not have the patience for a Socratic approach to mentoring. In order to be a good mentor, one must have a good prot?g?, someone who wants to learn how to figure out what to do and how to do it, not someone who wants to be told what to do and how to do it. A good prot?g? does not go to the mentor every five or ten minutes with another question⎯What should I do next? A good prot?g? would never ask (or should be taught never to ask) what a word or term means. And a good mentor does not answer a question if he or she can get the prot?g? to find the answer through research and study. Handing out answers won?t help a prot?g? develop into an independent professional, someone capable of solving problems. It creates a dependency. A good mentor does not hand-hold the prot?g?, and a good prot?g? does not want hand-holding. (This can be a problem when a person is assigned to be a mentor and told whom to mentor.) A mentor can only be as effective as the prot?g? is willing.

Unless the mentor takes a directive approach, he or she is not responsible for the prot?g??s work. The prot?g? is responsible for that. The mentor guides, but does not lead or control. A coach does that. (When U.S.C. coach Pete Carroll tells his quarterback to pass, he means pass, dammit.) In the Odyssey, it is Telemachus who decides to go looking for his father. Minerva gives advice about preparations for the voyage, but she doesn?t take the helm. (Think Yoda and Luke Skywalker.)

Clearly, a mentor must be someone who is playing at the top of his or her game. After all, the first mentor was a goddess. A mentor for contracting interns must be wise, a first rate journeyman contract specialist, and a first rate communicator. He or she must be someone with skills and the ability to facilitate the development of those skills in others. How many such people are out there, I wonder? (And what does an office do if it doesn?t have one?)

If my notions about mentors and mentoring are ?right,? and if a mentor is a patient guide rather than a supervisor, then mentoring can be time-consuming. It?s more like cooking in a crockpot than in a microwave. And that might make ?true? mentoring problematical in an office in which the boss sees an intern more as a working body, a workload resource, than a work-in-progress. In my view, mentoring is not a workload management process; it is an approach to professional development.

Of course, my notions of mentors and mentoring may be too narrow, or even completely out to lunch. Maybe mentoring is something else. But I can only say what I mean at this point in time. Others who use the term and advocate mentoring should say what they mean. Then we?ll know what we're talking about.