Being a Mentor

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I’ve been watching a Canadian show from 2009, Being Erica, which is about a thirty-something female in Toronto, whose life’s plans – love, career etc. – have become derailed.  Under unusual circumstances, she meets an even more unusual Therapist (Counsellor in British English) who helps her to time travel in order to answer all the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ queries we all have of our pasts.  Throughout the show, Erica learns to appreciate the present more, takes greater control over her life, and eventually becomes a Therapist herself.

Whilst the premise may sound a bit wacky, it’s been a very popular show, highly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  It’s Sex and the City, meets Frasier, meets Back to the Future.  And I, personally, believe it could be useful for Mentor training too!

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Granted, the topic in the show is therapy: more life plans than essay plans.  But elements in it ring true of the sessions I’ve had over the past year.  Therefore, I will attempt an overview of lessons I feel are applicable to our own work, substituting in practice, of course, the word ‘writer’ for ‘patient’.

  • ‘You are not your patient’. This lesson is about differentiating ourselves from the other person, not judging with same rulebook, allowing for the fact that others have different backgrounds and experiences that inform their outlooks, opinions, and choices.  This necessitates empathy in Mentoring, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, even if at the end you can’t wait for your own footwear again.
  • Linked to this, is the lesson from Dr Tom’s behaviour, that we can’t let our feelings enter into sessions. Mentors are human beings, of course, and sometimes a little of our own personal experience can provide useful examples or helpful advice gleaned from the woes of trial and error.  However, if we are having a bad day, it is not the fault – nor the problem – of our writers.  So this lesson is just to reinforce the professionalism we must bring to the Mentor room, as well as the fact that if we focus too much on ourselves and our own experiences, we are not only detracting from our Writers but also possibly alienating them if they have a different world view.
  • Having said that, ‘You are your patient’ is another valuable lesson from this show, emphasising that we have to see the similarities between ourselves and others. We are not so dissimilar in needs, fears, and desires, and it is best to keep in mind, especially in tricky sessions, that there are common denominators to explain that an aloof person may actually be acting out of pure panic, for instance.  It is important for Mentors to have patience, relate to the Writer where appropriate, and persevere with advice and examples.
  • But we need to be careful with the advice we dispense, for example where Brent – a colleague of Erica’s – is concerned in later seasons. Flippant advice, like ‘Just be yourself’ can be meaningless and not applicable to the real context it is needed for, while overly detailed advice might be too limiting for the other person.  Being a ‘shoulder to cry on’ as it were, someone who will listen and question and find out what the other person really wants and needs, allows Writers to find their own way, which will help them much more in the long-term.  It also occurs to me, as I write this, that there is a huge difference between someone coming to talk about a problem and someone actually asking for advice.  Only in the latter case, and possibly not even then, should we be considering dispensing serious advice and information.  But if we can find a way for the Writer to find out the information or come up with solutions themselves, so much the better.  An exception to this may be emerging needs as noted by a Mentor, such as realising that a Writer’s structure isn’t as logical as it could be.  But once this has been raised, it is perhaps then for the Writer to, again, come up with a solution, even through trial and error.
  • In fact, as with the character, Jenny, one of Erica’s best friends, we sometimes have to let people make mistakes so that they learn from them. We can’t wrap people in cotton wool, which is definitely one of the lessons I need to work on the most.  Just as with Erica’s friend and one-time boyfriend, Ethan, people have to, and often want to, find their own way, believing that one’s past – good or bad – is what makes you who you are.
  • And we make mistakes too, hence the importance of reflections and ongoing training. Like Erica’s ‘day without consequences that won’t stick’, a reckless approach to life, even in this fantastic one-off opportunity, can actually make you think harder about what to do in the first place once things start going horribly wrong.  Plus, the whole premise of the show is about confronting our mistakes, and our past, and to stop ‘if only-ing’ or ‘what if-ing’, remembering that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  It’s all gone in the blink of an eye, and certainly that’s how most of my sessions feel.  So I’d like to get as many of them right as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • But just how to get it right can be tricky at times. There is no perfect prescriptive way for each and every session to go.  So, just as with Erica’s task to find her way off a deserted island, we often need to make our own path, particularly in difficult sessions.  Sometimes, there is just no simple right or wrong way to do something, or answer a question.  But if the Writer can leave with a clearer understanding of their work, and an action plan to tackle their (sometimes emergent) problems, hopefully feeling a bit happier too, then our work is done.  It comes back, then, to reflection, and exploring if there are lessons to be learned for future sessions.
  • This is a good place to end with the show’s final episode, about standing on your own two feet, as Erica becomes a Doctor in her own right, and not a patient anymore. The importance here, I think, is for the Mentee.  Mentors won’t always be around, so we need to build Writer’s skills and confidence to go on themselves.  And it’s often not us who will know when the time is right for a Writer to spread their wings.  But the Writer will, and it’s my favourite moment, though fairly rare and a little bit nostalgic, when I see the true light of inspiration and productivity in a Writer’s eyes, that they are now ready for their assignment; in fact, for their degree.

I hope this summary is of some use to others, while I highly recommend watching the show if you can – for fun as well as for function!

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Tutoring Dos and Don’ts.

Cf. ‘Tutoring Dos and Don’ts’, Linda Stedje-Larsen and Roberta T. Schotka, pp272-274

According to this article, the Dos and Don’ts fall into nine categories:

  •  Job readiness
  • Professionalism, courtesy, and ethics
  • Preparing for the session
  • Role modelling
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Adhering to institutional and tutorial centre policies and procedures
  • Facilitating student-centred active learning
  • Demonstrating empathy rather than sympathy, and
  • Skilful session management

The article does not go into any real detail about these.  Though some of the categories are self-explanatory or not for Mentors themselves to determine (job readiness for e.g.), for me role modelling, communication, facilitating active learning, session management, and demonstrating empathy are the particular categories I will focus on in my reading and in team meetings this term.

However, I did think it useful that the article suggests training activities to develop these aspects: for instance, starting with a cartoon scenario for groups (or I suppose individuals) to think what the dos and don’ts should be, ahead of a real session, and another activity in which one person takes the role of the Mentor and the other the Writer, the latter asking realistic and challenging questions in response to the Mentor’s advice, e.g. ‘But what if…?’ in order to encourage the Mentor to review their approach.

These activities support the importance of Mentor preparation and reflection, as well as practice of our skills, to ensure we offer the best possible service.

Thus, in view of this, I am appraising my own sessions more and more.  Most of my errors/failings/flaws, I am realising, are missed opportunities.  For example, I have not always listened as keenly as I believe I have done, so with much more attention to this fact, today I was able to improve.  One writer had a lot of different concerns and seemingly had no preference about the order in which they were addressed when I asked him.  However, subtly, they reiterated concern for one particular aspect.  As I am now becoming more aware of the subtleties in people’s communication in sessions as opposed to perhaps everyday settings, I was able to pick up on this and focus on that particular issue.  The writer seemed very pleased and is willing to book further sessions for their other concerns that we hadn’t had time for, which may not have been the case if we hadn’t identified his predominant concern at the moment.

However, improving my listening skills is an ongoing process, as is being aware of other missed opportunities.  In another session, referencing was discussed, particularly why the same authors with books published in the same year have letters added to the citation and reference to distinguish the works from one another.  While I explained this using the referencing format handbook, and utilised tangible examples of how difficult it would be without the aid of this lettering system, I could also have asked the writer to offer an example of this principle in practice to confirm that they really had understood the system.

As a result, I have started an informal catalogue of missed opportunities, so that I can attempt to rectify this in future sessions.  Another that springs to mind, though in a much more nebulous fashion at the moment, is how much bias and assumption I bring to every situation in everyday life, including my sessions.  Assuming what a person knows or doesn’t know.  Assuming they approach their studies like me.  Assuming they care as much about their study as me.  Assuming that they are happy with the session.  Assuming they are not happy with the session.  Assuming they follow my examples and reasoning.  Or that they don’t.  And the list goes on.

This will be another ongoing process of being more aware that I carry, like anyone else, inherent biases and attitudes, that must be put to one side in sessions, as well as focusing on questions, on turning the tables when asked for advice, on focusing less on where I’m coming from and more on what the writer’s position and understanding are.  It is hard, but, I believe, very productive and positive work.

So what are your missed opportunities?

Reference:

Agee, K and R Hodges (2012). Handbook for Training Peer Tutors and Mentors. Ohio: Cengage Learning.

Questions I wish I would think to ask.

Why is it always AFTER an interview that you think of the great answer that would have landed you the job, or AFTER an exam that you think of the evidence that would have clinched your argument?  Well, this is the start of my ongoing list of – now pre-planned – questions that I wish I would ask DURING my Mentoring sessions.  Some of them I already do, some of them I hope I will!  Please feel free to add to this yourself too.

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Opening the conversation:

    • Are you enjoying your studies?
    • What would you like to discuss today?
    • Do you have the work/assignment details with you? When’s the deadline?
    • What have you done so far?
    • Which aspect would you like to focus on first? (This is especially helpful when a Writer comes with lots of issues in mind.)
  • Starting a topic (especially if the Writer’s not sure how to begin):
    • What DON’T you want to talk about in this essay?
    • What do you think is the best way to NOT start this project?
    • Can you mind map or list a few ideas of how a student might go about this project, from being first handed the assignment in the lecture?
    • Is there any small job you can start with that is remotely likeable?
    • Can you imagine how it will feel pulling an all-nighter right before the deadline because you still haven’t started?
  • What’s the question asking?
    • I’m new to this topic, can you explain it to me please?
    • Have you revised your lecture notes to see if those are any help?
    • Can you break it down into smaller parts?
  • Resource problems:
    • Have you had a look in the library?
    • What searches have you done on the library catalogue?
    • Have you tried looking at your textbook’s bibliography?
    • What does Google say?
  • Planning:
    • So you have no idea AT ALL about what to write? (Said right, this always results in a laugh, and the beginnings of a dialogue!)
    • How do you think you will begin? Will you start with a conclusion or a middle, for example?
    • Have you drafted a plan? Would you like to start now?
    • How is your timetable looking?
    • What does writing mean to you? Is it something you do after reading and note-taking, or something you do as you go along to organise your thoughts?
    • Can you use colours, mind maps, or post-it notes round your room to organise your thoughts?

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  • Drifting from the question:
    • How does this support your argument?
    • Why are you telling me, the reader, this?
    • If you could only make three points in this essay, what would those be?
    • Have you considered writing in bullet points first, then writing those up?
    • Can you tell me what this is about in just one sentence?
  • Referencing/plagiarism:
    • What is a reference for?
    • Have you ever used references before as a reader? If so, what information would you like to find there?
    • How would you feel if your work was used and not referenced?
    • When you read your textbooks, can you see how the author references literature?
  • Personal issues (e.g. finding time to study, boyfriend trouble):
    • How does that make you feel?
    • How do you think that might impact on your studies?
    • What would you advise a friend to do in a similar situation?
    • Can you come up with three ideas of how to improve the situation so that you can continue studying successfully?
    • Is this something you feel you need to talk to someone about? (So that I can signpost.)
  • Lack of signposts:
    • Could you read this out for me/talk me through this essay please?
    • I’m confused: when are you changing topic? How are you doing that?
    • If the University removed all of its signs, and there was nobody about to ask, how would a new student find their way around? How do you think that might apply for your essay?
    • When you read books and papers, what do you hope for from the writing, especially if it’s a brand new subject for you?
    • Have you ever read a bad piece of writing that has no structure to it, or a great piece that guides you through it?
    • Do the ideas in your introduction match those of your conclusion?
  • No evidence of an opinion/argument:
    • So what do YOU think about this topic? What’s your opinion of all this?
    • Do you agree with this argument?
    • Is it important for a reader like me to know that you (dis)agree?
    • How have you balanced both sides of the argument?
  • When asked for confirmation on a fact or idea:
    • Well what do you think? Do YOU think this is the right idea?
  • Trouble finishing the project:
    • Have you had a break?
    • Have you tried writing in a different location, or time of day?
    • Do you have an understanding friend who will let you chat to them about this topic?
    • Have you tried reading a new book on the topic for more inspiration?
    • Is there a small reward you can promise yourself for finishing?
  • When asked to proofread:
    • What particular parts of language are you concerned about? Can you show me some of your writing?
    • What do you think you should change it to?
    • Can you spot any errors in this sentence? (I can see five.)
    • Now you understand the rule, how will you amend the next sentence?
  • Interpreting feedback:
    • Does it make sense to you?
    • How might you apply this advice?
    • Can you understand how your Tutor, as a reader, feels?
    • Have you spoken to your Tutor about this?
  • Confidence boost:
    • What do YOU think?
    • Have you chatted to a friend about this topic?
    • You’re doing so well with this, what do you need me for? (Must be said with a smile!)
  • Closing the conversation:
    • How do you feel now?
    • What will you do next?
    • Would you like another session, (or offer time to think about the topic more first, if the Writer seems to hesitate)?

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Interview With The Mentor

In order to gain more background on Mentoring, and improve for the next academic year, I interviewed a generous Mentor – working in the Education sector – on their own experience.  I found the discussion very interesting and illuminating, and hope that others will also find some aspect to reflect on.

Jenny:   How long have you been a Mentor?

Mentor:   I gained the qualifications to practice officially over ten years ago.  But, I do believe that some people are born Mentors.

Jenny:   What attracted you to the profession?

Mentor:   Short version: I stopped short of a PGCE when asked to manage a Learning Support Unit as Senior Learning Mentor.

Jenny:  Why do you think we have Mentors?

Mentor:   Ok, so, how would you have managed in life without someone saying ‘that’s really good, but what other things can YOU come up with?’  History is full of original ideas.  And Mentors have been around for thousands of years.  Different names have just been used for the people being mentored, such as a protégé or understudy.

Jenny:   Which ideal qualities do you think a Mentor should possess?

 

Mentor:   It is imperative to be non-judgemental, have good listening skills, the ability to guide, teaching skills to disseminate knowledge, ability to inspire, motivate, and a GSOH – an official term for a good sense of humour. 

Jenny:   What is the main objective when Mentoring?

Mentor:   The main objective, through guidance, is for the Mentee to find their own right answers.

Jenny:   Are there any routine questions you ask when Mentoring?

Mentor:   How’re things going?  I see this as a very important open question.  This will determine what is foremost in affecting performance, giving a frame of mind; it can also be seen as a friendly opener.

Jenny:   When is the best time for someone to begin seeing a Mentor?

Mentor:   Anytime; Mentees should see their Mentors as an experienced friend, even if it’s just to bounce ideas off.

Jenny:   What are the most enjoyable aspects of Mentoring?

Mentor:   When a Mentee wants to see you because they’re really excited about something.  When a Mentee just pops in to say ‘Hi’, because everything is going well!  I never stop learning from the job and it never fails to surprise me.

Jenny:   Could you list some of the possible pitfalls?

Mentor:   Self-disclosure on a personal level, taking things personally, not analysing your own performance, believing Mentors are just a Counsellor.   Mentors do practice some counselling, as they do coaching, but they are neither as a whole.   The worst one in my experience is the wrong people going into this profession as their needs are greater than the Mentee’s.  Not having a sense of humour as well.

Jenny:   Would you say Mentoring is more like counselling, interviewing, coaching, teaching, or something else?

Mentor:   Mentoring is part counselling, coaching, teaching, and befriending.  A wide range of skills are required to relate to different people and their different personalities, skills, and situations.  You can’t relate to a person on their wavelength, helping them with certain studies if you don’t use counselling skills to LISTEN to what they’re saying.  Teaching skills pick up on HOW they learn best and relating to that information.  Mentoring is teasing out of them alternative ideas, using your suave sophisticated personality, coaching them with their brilliant idea.  It’s about that moment: see they knew it all the time!

Jenny:   How best do you administer advice to a Mentee?

Mentor:   Get a lot of background information.  Listen very carefully to what they really want.  Keep replies to facts whenever possible, relating back to what they’re in need of.

Jenny:   Are there are general rules, processes, and/or principles to follow when Mentoring?

Mentor:   I set up whole procedures for all Mentors to follow. This way there was continuity.  Lots of necessary paperwork before, during, and afterwards.  In addition, answering to the LEA, we have to produce quantitative measures from qualitative results.

Jenny:   What advice would you offer new Mentors?

Mentor:   Become a Mentee with your own Mentor.  Ask questions, lots of them.  Ask permission to sit in on other people’s sessions.  Get basic qualifications; they’re there for a reason.  If you don’t know something, say so; but always tell the Mentee that you will find out, and always follow up.

Jenny:   How could experienced Mentors improve their skills?

Mentor: Read, talk to others, research.  No two people and no two situations are the same.  A Mentor never stops learning, but they need their own Mentors too!

Jenny:   Have you personally learned anything from your own experience?

Mentor:   Every single day.  There are many types of hardship, but most people find they’re a lot stronger than they ever imagined.  A lot more intelligent than they give themselves credit for, and a lot more loving than they like to show!  Every person out there is trying to live their life in their own way, the only way they know.

Jenny:   Thank you very much for your time.  Keep up the good work!

Memories of Mentoring

Expect the unexpected is great advice for life;
In mentoring, it describes the writer and their strife.

A lot was discovered in one academic year,
The learning curve was fun, but steep, challenging, and sheer.

In learning not to talk whenever I should listen;
The power of silence promotes a writer’s vision.

How to get involved in a discussion and advise,
But to step back, be a sounding board, not patronise.

Holding fire: it’s not tell, but show and offer choices,
It’s recognising that writers have their own voices.

Getting a writer to explain what things are complex,
Having them tell you what they’re planning on doing next.

How to be resourceful, and varied with suggestions,
And handle embarrassing video reflections.

Be lively and warm, not abrupt, or to interrupt,
Also being foe, going where writers don’t want to go.

Asking so many questions it’s like an interview,
Remembering to smile, to check the time, then review.

Discussing facts and thoughts from diverse subjects unknown,
I am shocked by all the ways as a mentor I’ve grown.

Jobs abound: empathiser, right through to editor,
Counsellor, admin, blogger, and a motivator.

Yet watching people learn and blossom is amazing,
There’s nothing like the glow of someone’s ‘light bulb’ dazzling.

And why for this piece have I chosen rhyming couplets?
Whatever level of thrill you’d expect, double it!

The Tutor’s ‘Many Hats’

Over the holiday, I read The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, which can be found on the Mentor Room shelf. An excellent book, covering many of the aspects we were trained on, as well as scenarios, common questions and problems, I would definitely recommend it.

One particular little section I thought might be useful for the blog was the section on pp 28-31, on the many roles of the writing mentor both within and between sessions, along with advice and any pitfalls. Here’s a quick summary. But if you have time, give the book a go!

Ally – a friend who supports a writer in difficulty, namely getting their work just right, calling for sympathy, empathy, encouragement, and helpfulness. This can include explaining matters in simple terms, understanding their situation and needs, taking all questions seriously, and smiling!
Coach – instructing and directing someone’s strategy, through observation and evaluation, rather than actually actively participating. This involves asking questions, making comments as a reader, giving options for accomplishing tasks or approaching problems, and explaining information – such as the use of the semicolon – as required.
Commentator – describing the entire process and progress within that, and keeping an eye on the bigger picture. This especially relates to reminding the writer of their eventual audience, when considering structure and corrections.
Collaborator – sharing ideas and discussing content in detail with a writer. However, if mentors are not careful, this can lead to laziness, confusion, and a lack of control on the part of the writer.
Writing ‘expert’ – having extensive experience to be a mentor in the first place, but allowing for the admission of limitations to knowledge and skills. This is a great time to look something up together, and show the writer how to make the most of resources.
Learner – enjoying and learning from writers’ topics and perspectives. Though, it may seem as though the mentor benefits the most from this, and from listening, in fact it can make them the ‘perfect audience’ for the writer, as it encourages them to explain their work, clarify ideas, and become aware of their readers.
Counselor – listening to concerns and issues, such as motivation and time management. Although an element of listening and understanding people’s situations is necessary, if the particular issue seems to be serious, it is worth referring them to Study Skills workshops, Tutors, or even relevant Student Services, such as Wellbeing seminars.

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli (2010). The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Mentoring and Coaching Research Journal

In the coming weeks I will be undertaking a volunteer role as a mentor/coach to secondary school pupils and in preparation for this post I have been assigned some useful reading. I was directed to The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. This is an online journal which is accessible to all (no need for a password or subscription) and all the articles published have been peer reviewed. Every year two volumes are released, one in the February and the other in the August.

Numerous different types of articles are included within the journal from typical academic research style papers to reflective essays and book reviews. The field of mentoring and coaching is explored from a variety of viewpoints such as that of coaching/mentoring adolescents or how coaching/mentoring is utilised within major companies. Reading through the journal gives you an idea of the important role a mentor/coach can play in the lives of their mentees or learners. It is also a reminder that coaching and mentoring is a field of work which is in a constant state of change and evolution.

As a result of having read a few papers included within the journal I have taken the opportunity to reflect on my own mentoring experience and how I can use what I have learnt from the current research into the area to improve how I mentor/coach the students who come to see me. It has also highlighted the differences which exist between mentoring/coaching someone on a regular basis to how we mentor/coach the students who come to see us as they typically only see us once (though this is not always the case). This journal is a very useful tool for anyone who mentors/coaches/advises and I would recommend checking it out.

If anyone is interested in reading any of the articles in the journal the link is posted below. All past issues of the journal from their first issue published in August 2003 to their current February 2016 volume can be accessed online. They have also published a number of ‘Special Issues’ which can also be found on their website.

Hopefully you will find the journal helpful or at the very least interesting!

The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. 2016. Available at: http://ijebcm.brookes.ac.uk/ (Accessed 25 Jan 2016)

 

A Checklist for Tutors

This is just an informal and rough idea of the areas which I think would generally be covered in a standard, successful mentoring session. I personally find this is a useful template to consider when reflecting on your sessions.

There may be points you do not agree with and would not necessarily do yourself, or points which you feel are missing – please feel free to make comments or suggestions!

  • At the beginning of the session, I established rapport and put the student at ease.
  • I asked the student what he or she needed help with, and we decided what to work on.
  • I looked over the assignment sheet (or the student’s notes) to be sure that I understood the assignment.
  • I made my explanations simple and clear (without being patronising) so that the student could understand them.
  • I made sure that the work was the student’s rather than my own, and that the student understood that the work was his or her responsibility.
  • I offered encouragement by pointing out what the student already knew and helped the student to organise in a manageable way what he or she needed to work on.
  • When I was unable to confidently answer the student’s questions, I consulted other reference material or referred him or her to their lecturer.
  • I was careful not to criticise the course, lecturer, assignment, lecturer’s comments or grade.
  • I was careful not to offer too much praise and didn’t suggest a grade for the work, even if I was asked to.
  • I filled out the appropriate forms documenting the session.

 

Writing at Postgraduate Level

Hi everyone

Just a quick little update. I found a really useful article by the Unversity of Reading on writing at Masters level. I think it can be quite common for students to find the transition from UG to PG quite daunting (and from experience definitely from Masters to PhD!) so I think in my free sessions I will look at gathering more information to help writers that struggle to know how to ramp research and writing up a gear. I’ll save them on the U-Drive and can write a piece on here to summarise key points.

I know this isn’t relevant to all of us as we don’t all deal with postgrads, but a handy thing for the ones that do I hope.

Sofie 🙂