The “Me” in Mentoring

I’ve written about getting to be a mentor and critical friend in my work with CORE Education previously. In this blogpost I thought I would reflect on what I’ve learned in about 18 months of doing this interesting, engaging and challenging mahi.

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My image, “Mentor”, Dec 17

Ironically, I’m going to start with myself. This is completely contradictory in the face of a mentoring relationship which is really all about the mentee. What I love about mentoring is getting to know another person and their context. It’s been a great antidote to the almost crippling imposter syndrome I face working with giants in the Aotearoa New Zealand education system at CORE Education.

When mentoring, there’s no way on earth I could possibly know everything (or, indeed, anything) about the areas of interest and focus of the mentee. Therefore, I release myself of this burden. I don’t have to be any kind of “expert” in their field. I need to be curious and willing to learn more. Given my love of learning, that part’s a snap.

The thing I find easy to get carried away with is the fact that I genuinely like the mentees I get to work with. This means that I can slip out of ‘mentor mode’ and slip into ‘casual conversation with a colleague mode’. I can find myself wanting to share stories of my practice, to tell them what I think they should do with the issue on the table, and to make it about me and what I know and can offer. I guess it’s like slipping into teacher mode in a way.

And when this happens, I’m no longer listening intently. I’m listening for a pause. I’m holding my story, my idea in my head so I can say it. I’m making the mentoring about me. This is definitely work in progress for me, but I reckon I’m improving on the “interrupty” front. I think my next step is to be purposeful in sharing stories. Perhaps to ask if sharing a story at this point might be useful. And to keep focusing on developing my active listening skills.

I have other things I’m wanting to focus on with improving my mentoring skills too. Recently my goal has been to ensure that we ‘telescope up’. Yes, right now we’re discussing this particular issue in this particular area of your practice, but what can you learn from this that might be transferable into other areas or other contexts?

In 2018, because I’m lucky enough to continue mentoring next year, I really want to improve on checking in. By this I mean asking: “Is this working for you?”, “How might I meet your needs better?” I want to build this in to help me reflect on my mentoring practice and not to get complacent that I’ve got this mentoring malarkey done. Because I haven’t. Not by a long shot.

So, actually, this post has been all about ME. But in a way, it’s about me learning to position myself differently than in a ‘normal’ conversation. Because in mentoring, it’s so not about me.

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Mentor, mentor, on the wall…

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CC0 TobiasMuMo

Something I get asked a lot in my work with teachers and leaders across Aotearoa New Zealand is how to ensure people are ‘on board’ with the planned initiative for the school. It isn’t uncommon for leaders to say in hushed tones, “We have a … range of staff at our school, Philippa,” as if that were a situation entirely unique to their context, and not the reality of every classroom and every staffroom everywhere. In fact, the principles of Universal Design for Learning encourage us to recognise the diversity of people and to embrace this as a strength. Isn’t wonderful that we’re all different, with our own backgrounds, stories, brains, and ways of learning?

But I hear the sense of frustration for what it is: the desire of the passionate to share their passion. And I don’t have answers, nor, more’s the pity, a magic wand. But I do have some thinks, mostly due to reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, having my own mentoring relationship through CORE’s uChoose programme, and exploring some of the work of Joan Dalton.

So here are a few things I’ve learned and that mesh with what I consider to be respectful practice.

Garvey Berger and Johnston remind us that we’re not logical beings like Spock from Star Trek. So outlining cold facts about why I should embrace a new initiative isn’t all that likely to be effective. Rather, we need to engage people’s emotions. The way to do this is through story and metaphor. These draw people in and help them to get excited about new directions. Garvey Berger and Johnston actually suggest that the kinds of metaphors that are useful are those to do with journeys – but not destinations. And that giving people the sense that they’ve already started the desired change is important.

I really focus on keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story. This helps me to be curious about what stories other people tell themselves about their actions to frame themselves in this way. Seeking to hear and understand other people’s stories is crucial, in my opinion. And this does take energy, empathy and time.

Which is where I bring the following strategy from Joan Dalton into play:

  • Listen
  • Pause
  • Paraphrase
  • Inquire

For me personally, this is aspirational, but I know that on the odd occasion where I’ve managed this, it can be quite powerful. My goal is to support educators to reflect on the decisions they’ve made and to consider these deeply. What worked? What didn’t? What could I do differently next time?

I feel privileged to mentor some fine educators and am on my own learning journey about how to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, but it is an honour to be gifted with their stories and to hear of their challenges and their successes.