College Quarterly
Spring 1997 - Volume 4 Number 3
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What Mentoring Is All About.

by Cory Ross and Colleen Mahy

A successful educational experience often includes contact with a mentor. Most of us can recall a time when we benefited from the timely attention and counsel of someone in a position of authority or specialized knowledge, someone who listened to our concerns, gave us appropriate advice, and made our passage through the process of post-secondary education easier and more personally rewarding.

This essay discusses the attributes of good mentors and of the nature of their relationships with students, and suggests how all those involved in the educational process can work to promote strong mentorship.

The Qualities of Good Mentorship

A successful mentor characteristically embodies the three qualities sought by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion in Frank L. Baum's story for The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939): intelligence, empathy, and courage. That search for Oz seems a useful metaphor in understanding the attributes of successful mentorship in post-secondary educational institutions.

Under the rubric of intelligence, mentorship not only provides a transfer of knowledge, but demonstrates how to acquire and apply the critical thinking skills and the habits of enquiry and logical argument needed to create and communicate that knowledge. Likewise, successful mentorship requires empathy, expressed in the responsiveness and understanding by which good mentors forge relationships of trust with students who often are struggling with personal difficulties or problems in adapting to the particular culture of the institution.

That quality of caring in mentoring relationships is also the foundation for the specialized insights and positive reinforcement which increase and reward intellectual curiosity and make students value education not only for its utility, but for the satisfactions of learning. And under the rubric of courage, good mentorship fosters students' personal growth and self-reliance through faith in reasoned viewpoints and confidence in acting, as the Oxford English dictionary calls it, "on one's beliefs and convictions."

The skills and attributes required for good mentorship are the skills and attributes we wish to instill in our students. Of course, mentoring abilities are not an artifact of birth and their development requires nurturing resources, training, and conscious effort within a supportive institutional setting. But even if all of these elements are present, and discounting for the pressures of time and functionally-specific institutional roles, not all teachers will make good mentors. Their aptitude for mentorship resides in their individual characteristics and experience. Thus, one of the important products of mentoring relationships is that successful students are encouraged to themselves become mentors, to expand their skills and develop their characters, and to transfer that positive experience to successive generations.

The Role of Mentorship in Education

We approach the new millenium reeling from the transformative socio-economic impacts of rapid globalization, growing dependence on new technologies, the advent of the "information economy," and fundamental questions about the role of the state in society. The scope and speed of these changes has produced widespread uncertainty and anxiety and thus, it would be surprising if the goals and methods of education were not subjects of increased controversy.

While educators, policymakers, and important attentive publics (students, parents, taxpayers, employers, social activists and advocates, etc.) seem agreed on the need to "reform the educational system," in the resulting competition for influence and resources there seems little basis for consensus as to what needs changing or how that might be done.

For instance, there are those who believe that the salient problem is "delivery" and that its resolution can be found in better instruction, perhaps through greater reliance on computer-based technologies. There are those who believe that to improve education requires primary emphasis on better curricular "content," typically through renewed and rigorous attention to the traditional basic skills: reading, writing and mathematics.

Of course, those views are not mutually exclusive; nor are they adequate representations of the range of informed viewpoints on the subject, and judging the merits of either of these approaches or assessing their applicability to post-secondary education is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is arguable that much of the continuing search for "creative" means to better deliver and improve course content has been at the expense of actually talking with students, and that good education requires individual faculty and students to be continuously engaged in dialog which promotes learning. As the experience of post-secondary education, whatever its other flaws and strengths, becomes more impersonal (crowded classrooms, computer-based instruction, independent study courses, etc.), the role of mentorship becomes more significant.

Fostering the Mentoring Environment

In the MGM movie, the mentor is the Wizard (despite his flaws) and his Oz is not a final destination, but the metaphorical place in which we discover our potential and recognize our strengths. Schools which recognize its importance will promote mentorship through building institutional supports and enhancing the capabilities of individual faculty.

Both of these require resources, purposeful effort, leadership and resolve. They include emphasizing teaching and interpersonal skills in recruitment and promotion, developing specialized in-service training in better teaching and counseling, providing all faculty (not only academic advisors and counselors) with the time and suitable physical facilities to see students, developing intervention mechanisms and referral destinations for students in difficulty, and even the use of retired and part-time faculty as advisors. All these activities promote mentorship even in the absence of a formal program.

The goal of these efforts is to create a culture of mentorship which enables students to regularly engage in dialog with their instructors, advisors or counselors, in which classroom instruction is supplemented by that individual interaction, and through which students develop greater confidence and better skills. Much of what institutions can do to promote mentorship falls within the purview of professional development offices and student services programs and requires their collaboration, and perhaps some redistribution of budgetary resources. That is likely to prove a good investment.

Conclusion

This discussion has identified the attributes of good mentors and the characteristics of a mentoring environment, and has suggested some means by which mentorship can be strengthened and promoted. Successfully mentored students transfer that positive experience to successive generations. Successful mentors benefit by enriching their experience and developing in their professions. And institutions which provide strong mentorship create the kind of positive experiences which build institutional reputations and enrollments, attract superior faculty, and engender the loyalties of supportive alumni associations. Mentoring makes them better environments in which to learn, teach, and grow.

Bibliography

Kridel, C., R. Bullough Jr., and P. Shaker, eds. Teachers and Mentors: Profiles of Distinguished Twentieth Century Professors in Education. New York: Garland, 1996.
MacIntyre, D. and H. Hagger. Mentors in Schools: Developing the Profession of Teaching. London: David Fulton, 1996.


Cory Ross is the Vice-President Academic and Colleen Mahy is Co-ordinator of the School of Continuing Education, at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, Ontario.

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• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1997 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology