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Approach and Attitude: Ideas Behind Being an Impactful Mentor

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Alison Crawford

This essay talks about ideas for improvement as a mentor using as example the Empowering Learners Partnerships.

Approach and Attitude: Ideas Behind Being an Impactful Mentor
Extra-Classroom teaching is indubitably important and beneficial, and can create space for reciprocal learning as shown through the Empowering Learner’s program. In the most basic way, these learning opportunities are reliant and built upon the relationship between parties. Without a mentor there would be no mentee, without a mentee, no mentor. The success of the learning is highly dependent on this relationship: naturally a more understanding and supportive relationship will foster a better learning environment and thus more learning.
However, as students entering this relationship it is easy to overlook ways that one can individually begin and build the relationship in a positive direction. This type of relationship is foreign to most of us, and it is easy to be distracted by feelings of in trepidation, discomfort or general confusion about if the learning is legitimate and “enough.” The purpose of this chapter is to say that all of these feelings are warranted, but not unsurpassable road blocks to a successful partnership. With a slight change of approach one can recognize these feelings as opportunities for the building of the relationship; learning to embrace each moment with an open mindset influenced by the ideas of cognitive love and flexibility will not only make you a stronger mentor but will also improve the learning for your mentee.
The most interesting (and sometimes most difficult) aspect of the extra-classroom teaching we are doing is finding and understanding and negotiation of the workplace and more formal education. In this respect it is important to begin a partnership with an open approach that is respectful of your mentee’s existing knowledge, skills and interests. Fostering “learning from the “life world”” is an important idea and task for mentors; this means to respect your mentee as someone who hopes “to experience even in their busiest and most instrumental activities, the virtues and happiness which are ends-in-themselves, and give life meaning and purpose.”[1] In such, we as mentors should recognize this partnership as a journey personal and specific to our mentee, and openness, enthusiasm and respect for their knowledge and the knowledge they desire to acquire will open opportunities for them to learn from the life world. One way to honor and create this type of learning is to recognize “people learn best when they have the freedom to follow their curiosity and when they can arrive at ideas through connections they have made….Mentors have constantly to learn to nurture this freedom not only through deft questions and other interventions but also by seeming to do nothing. Mentors have to learn how to wait”[2]  This speaks to the unpredictability that allowing such freedom in learning can be, but how moments of “not knowing” and following one’s curiosity can ultimately be very useful to both mentor and mentee. Understanding how to navigate these moments is what will be tackled next.
The Empowering Learner’s Program is grounded strongly in the context of freedom: the mentee is allowed to choose not only what they wish to learn but also what they wish to teach, the partners are allowed to meet whenever they want and allowed to structure their time however they see fit. This freedom can be wonderful or highly problematic. Mentors are required to learn a lot about their partner in a short period to in order to be able to fulfill the intent of the program: teaching a new skill. Because of the personal specification of each and every partnership, it is useful (after embracing the idea of fostering learning from the life world) to attune oneself to the concept of “cognitive” love which acknowledges the risks that come with the intimate relationship between mentor and mentee but also stresses the importance and joy of learning together:
“In the personal confidences mentor and student share, in the passion-laden expressions of worry and need, there are to be discovered not just idiosyncratic attitudes or psychotherapeutic material, but also the foundations of curiosity. Every personal confidence is at least implicitly a judgment about the “lovability” of the world; it is an implicit and intensely valued question that hopefully, as well as frighteningly, reaches beyond the isolated self. The midwifery of mentoring is to help bring forth into dialogue those judgments and those questions….In the cognitive love the mentor offers to and evokes in students, important academic learning occurs about diverse practical matters. But both mentor and student also learn…in the delight they experience through a shared inquiry that seeks a better life and coherently embraces the diversity of the unknown, mentor and student discover beauty.”
-From Teaching to Mentoring, Lee Herman and Alan Mandell, pg.136-139
Broadly, this means embracing and allowing for personal disclosure and sharing of interests, worries and overall emotions to your partner, but managing these disclosures to find out what is important to them and utilizing this knowledge to create more opportunities for learning. Communication is the understated necessity in these partnerships; without the creation of a dialogue (which should be initiated by the mentor!) there is no space for the disclosures that are so important in learning about your partner and thus fostering their learning from the life world. Cognitive love also demands of the mentor openness to not knowing and to learning with  your partner. Often as students we feel incapable and unsure of our positions as mentors because we are not “experts” but this background is actually key to being able to admit not knowing and thus learn with your partner. This is the learning cognitive love creates, the learning we should strive towards.
            Now that we have a foundation of theory behind our approach it is important to acknowledge the attitudes we can exert as a mentor that will help our mentees learn. Just as it is important to approach the uncertainties of the partnership with an open and enthusiastic mindset, it is equally if not more important to exhibit these attitudes to your partner throughout the course of the learning. Since we wish our mentees to be enthused about the learning to be done it is important to realize that our attitude will largely determine their attitude: “Humans are biologically predisposed to mirroring and mimicking the emotions they encounter….a teacher may broadcast interest and enthusiasm…prompting mirrored responses to mirrored responses….a teacher can set up a positive feedback loop by communicating greater confidence in a learner’s abilities, and by selecting tasks that are challenging but do-able.”[3] Exhibiting an open, positive and supportive attitude will help your mentee be comfortable but equally enthused and committed. 
            Now comes the part of tackling practical difficulties that any type of learning will present. It is easy to allow a training to be derailed by someone being late, the lesson being boring, the learner having trouble with the material, yet it is important to embrace these moments as opportunities and use a more open and flexible approach to mentoring: “…teaching is largely a matter of occasioning, of presenting opportunities for things to “fall together” in ways that cannot be fully anticipated….learning is dependent on, but never determined by teaching.”[4] Framing moments of uncertainty or trouble in this way, we can see how sticking to the plan is not essential nor recommended and instead “…learning and teaching seem to be more about expanding the space of the possible and creating conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimagined….the issue that presents itself for teaching is not how to control what happens, but how to participate mindfully in the unfolding of possibilities.”[5] Therefore, if we can learn for ourselves how to be open to unexpected occurrences we can foster in our mentee freedom and openness to following curiosities and finding learning and understanding in the unexpected. This mimics the organic learning we all experience in our day to day lives, and will help our learner connect to the material. The partnership is a gift in this way: there is a freedom for the unexpected to manifest in unpredictable ways that, ultimately, when handled with curiosity and openness, can lead to unforeseen and unplanned yet wonderful learning. These moments should not be feared but instead looked forward to and embraced.
            The Empowering Learner’s Partnerships present opportunity for mentors and mentees to grow and learn, intrapersonally and academically. To make the most of these partnerships developing a true partnership and relationship is of pivotal importance, and can be done when initiative is taken by the mentor. Approaching the partnership with openness and enthusiasm will make your partner comfortable and respected. Further, looking for moments when curiosity can guide the learning will aid is respecting your mentee and teaching from the life world. Finally, embracing moments of not knowing can create the space for you to learn with your mentee and make the learning more impactful and lasting. Of course all is easier said than done but trusting in the program, your partner, and yourself will lead to embracing all of the obstacles you encounter as moments of opportunity for greater learning and growth.

[1] Herman, Lee and Mandell, Alan, From Teaching to Mentoring in Adult Education: Principles and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education, RoutledgeFalmer, New York, New York, 2004, pg.12.
[2] Ibid, pg. 69
[3] Davis, Brent, Sumara, Dennis and Luce-Kapler, Rebecca, Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in a Complex Times, Second Edition, Routledge, New York, New York, 2008, pg.206.
[4] Ibid, pg. 222
[5] Ibid, pg 225-226