Mentoring comes up in my thoughts and conversation frequently these days. Of course at my age and stage of career that’s part of what happens: I have over thirty-five years of accumulated experience and knowledge and enjoy passing along what I’ve distilled. My past writing on this subject was about how hard it is to develop mentoring relationships in the workplace because of the rapid turnover of personnel, the culture gap between generations, and how older folks need to work longer and are protective of their jobs and know how (now called “intellectual capital”).
Recently, I’ve observed another obstacle to developing mentoring relationships: our easy access to information. An increasing percentage of the workforce has grown up in the information age and automatically uses technology to find instant answers to questions and resources on topics of interest. In so many ways this is marvelous. Do a topic search for “organizational skills for teachers,” for example, and see what happens. No, you don’t need to because you know you will get page after page of references that will eventually lead you to solid and helpful information.
How is this different from walking down the hall to Master Teacher Beth and discussing your organizational challenges with her? “But why would I do that,” you might ask, “when I can get the benefit of dozens of Beths by going to the internet?” It’s a good question and my answer is why not do both, although to do the latter might make you appear vulnerable (you think), admitting that you are uncertain just when you’re trying to prove yourself and demonstrate competence and mastery.
So what is it that you can get from Beth that you can’t get from the internet? You may get more information from the internet than you will from Beth, but you won’t get the relationship. And part of what’s important is the relationship. Someone who might care about you, look out for you, take you aside and challenge you when you need it, offer a piece of advice at the right time, and share the process with you. . . .
What process? you ask. That’s a difficult question to answer because there is no one process, but some process does exist when one applies information. The specific process for each of us varies, at least some, and we each need to discover how to mesh our own internal process with the external structure in our work. In other words, we need to accommodate the body of knowledge inherent in the discipline of the work with our individual/personal way of working. Good mentors understand this and can offer guidance at the right time because they recognize the complexity of process and that timing is everything—and that’s where the relationship comes in. Receiving information from an impersonal stranger—and as good as the information gotten via the internet may be, it’s still impersonal—may not be helpful. A mentor, however, understands the specific concept of the workplace process, and as he or she gets to know the mentee can offer guidance, personal experience, wisdom, and other resources. The mentor has been there and can put into context all the pieces—the required information, the level of development of the mentee, and the desired goal—while accounting for the mentee’s own discovery process.
Mentoring is both art and science. It combines the tools of the trade with experience, while developing a meaningful and useful relationship. Mentors, of course, must guard against the desire to create a clone (immortality?), thereby not recognizing the uniqueness of the mentee. Mentoring must always be about the mentee and what’s needed in his or her development. The value of thoughtfully offering guidance, which results in the growth of another person and contributing to the greater good are reward enough.