Friday, August 21, 2015

On the Art of Mentoring Students

Latin American Humanities, Valencia College (2003)

One of my very favorite students from my 30 years of teaching college has asked me to offer her some advice on mentoring students. She has told me that I had been a mentor to her. I am quite honored to be asked and humbled that she saw me in this manner. She has made quite a life for herself since leaving our university. She is now working with instructors who would mentor college students at Oklahoma State University where she now works. For this recently retired instructor, all this is very gratifying.

After thinking about this for several days, I wrote the following draft and immediately sent it two recent mentees, both very fine students who are now in graduate school. Their feedback is incorporated into the following and they are credited as editors at the end of this essay.
If I were to offer any advice, I think it would include, but not be limited to, the following:

·         The obvious – listen to your students. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say. You don’t. You may not even understand what they mean when you hear them. Ask them. When it comes to their world, they are the experts.

Beyond listening when the student talks, which is extremely important, it’s also important for a mentor to be attentive as they are responding to the student. When we talk to anyone it’s easy to focus solely on what we want to say, and it’s important to know what we intend to convey. But it’s even more important that we look to those to whom we are talking and try to determine what they are hearing.

It’s very likely you will use common terms, whose meaning may be obvious to you, that your student hasn’t heard before or may mean something very different to them. It is important to look for any possible confusion flashing across their face. They may well be translating what you said into something other than your meaning.

If you see that look, follow up on it. Clarify your meaning, give an example, or ask the student, “Do you understand what I mean when I say ____?” It’s important that you make all of those options specific. Simply asking “Do you understand?” will get a “Yes” 90% of the time with the student not truly understanding what you intended to convey simply because they can’t read your mind and know what you intended to say.

Don’t listen with a sense of how quickly and expeditiously you can meet whatever demand they are raising at that moment. They’re not in your office asking for an administrative service. You’re not their technocrat. The university will provide plenty of those if they need their services. They’re there to see a live human being capable of being fully present with them – you. Listen to what they are actually saying. They deserve your full attention.

In the process you may well unexpectedly discover volumes of information that you really need to know in order to mentor these students well when you do. You may find that some are working too many hours to succeed in school. That requires immediate attention. You may find that some have gone a little crazy once out from under their parents’ roof and the structure that provided them. That requires talking about balance. You find out that some have unreasonably demanding parents pushing them. That requires a reality check for the student (remembering that the parents are not your concern, the student is).

You find that some have serious maturity gaps and may not be capable of behaving appropriately just yet but perhaps can learn to do so if that is brought to their attention in a supportive way. It is a serious failing of the academy to insist that these students come to us as adults. They rarely do. And in an age of helicopter parents, many are even further away from the maturity required of an adult than in the past. In all fairness, many have never had much chance to make decisions for themselves and be accountable for them. But your students are in the process of becoming adults and you do have a role to play in that by acting as a sounding board and, upon occasion, as the accountability officer.

You may find out that some have serious behavioral issues from addictions to video games or drugs or alcohol to tendencies toward violence.  Most of these behaviors are adaptive in nature and point toward larger problems. Encouraging the student to identify and address what may be driving these behaviors could be life changing for them. But bear in mind, their issues may also be beyond your ability to help them. It’s important to know your limits and to be willing to refer a student to those who are trained to deal with such problems when necessary.

You may well discover that you have a genius on your hands who is by far smarter than you are. That can be intimidating but it hardly means you can’t teach them anything or learn from them in the process. It simply means they may take you up on your statements and challenge your perspectives. That is almost always a gift that requires you to do what you ask them to do – think. Receive it as such.

You may also discover diamonds in the rough, kids who are quite brilliant but have grown up thinking they aren’t. It is important to tell them the talent that you observe. For some of them, it will be the first time in their lives they’ve heard that and the cognitive dissonance they may experience in comparison to the self-image they have internalized may make it difficult for them to hear that. But be persistent. The United Negro College Fund is absolutely right – a mind is a terrible thing to waste. These diamonds in the rough deserve your encouragement, your support and your ongoing challenge to grow and become all of who they can be. This is one of the many places mentors actually have the potential to change lives. But remember that in the end, it is always the student’s decision as to how they will live them.

In every case, never forget your role. You are not their psychologist, their spiritual advisor, their grief counselor, their addictions therapist, their drinking buddy, and certainly not their parent. You are the faculty or staff member this student has identified as safe, reliable, authentic and capable of offering them advice they may or may not take and modeling a role they may or may not wish to follow. And they need you to be just that.

·         Call them on their crap. A good mentor is willing to say to a student that their last comment is simply unsupportable and indefensible. Ask them why they made their statement. What does it mean? Why would that be so?

Mentors will tell their mentees when their statements are hurtful to others for no good reason and why this is ultimately harmful to the student themselves. A good mentor will refuse to buy into transparently bogus excuses for non-performance and hold them accountable. A good mentor will love his/her students – all of who they are including the warts. But s/he will not confuse love for sympathy when sympathy is not due. Holding a student accountable is the most important thing any mentor can do.

·         Suggest alternatives – A good mentor will challenge students on unworkable plans and unrealistic dreams. But an important follow up is usually something along the lines of “have you thought about…?” It is not the mentor’s job to plan the student’s life. They don’t need your permission or approval to do anything. But you may well have a good sense of what alternatives might exist for a student’s current projects and even their life ambitions. You may also have a good sense of why their stated ambitions may not be workable.

There’s a fine line between encouraging them and acquiescing to an unworkable plan. Err on the side of asking questions, not making judgments. Remember, they may well see you as the substitute authority figure for the parents, pastors, teachers, or community authorities they have left behind. Take that role, whether you have asked for it or not, seriously. They do.

One of the hardest things to do is to watch a student whose welfare you care about make a decision which you know they will view as a mistake later. You may well want to protect them from making a misstep. But while you should give them counsel if they ask for it, you need to let them make their own choice and not be too forceful in your opinion. Remember, they often come to you precisely for a clear-minded viewpoint.

Bear in mind two things. First, it’s important to remember that you may be wrong about them regretting it. They are not you and each of us has our own unique path to follow. Secondly, even if you are correct, mistakes are often the moments in which we learn the most, painful as such lessons may be. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t state what you believe, just make sure it doesn’t come across as a conversation stopper.

If the mistake is made and proves to have difficult repercussions, try and be available to talk when it occurs. If the student is willing, let them talk through the problem and understand what happened. As someone whose counsel was sought before, your opinion may have a lot of weight in helping them process the situation and determining what they take away from it.

·         One size does not fit all – Mentors encounter all sorts and conditions of students. Some require major encouragement. They come to you already beat down by life and often prone to engaging in self-defeating behaviors so that the results of their efforts match their internalized impoverished visions of themselves. It’s important not to enter into co-dependent patterns with such students, a major risk for those of us in the helping professions. But many of these students simply need someone to care. Encourage them to check in with you as they see fit. And be fully present for them when they come.

The other end of the spectrum is the student who comes from a privileged             background and is either unable or unwilling to see how meeting their sense of        entitlement is not owed them and can be self-defeating. They may not appreciate            your wakeup call but in the long run, they may well see it as timely and necessary.     Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was prone to tell his mainstream Protestant seminarians that their job as preachers was to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Good mentors will probably find their jobs to be similar.

At the same time, be aware that Millennial students often report feeling very driven and pressured to succeed. The current phenomenon of multi-tasking is a good example of that. In all honesty, who is really capable of performing several tasks at once with any level of competence or quality of performance? And who should ever feel compelled to do so? While there is no small amount of ego involved in even attempting such, students often speak of a sense of meeting an unarticulated but powerful demand for such behaviors. Trying to get your mentee to see their lives and the expectations placed upon them in realistic terms may be your biggest challenge. Remember, they don’t have your experience to draw upon.

·         Follow that dream! –The recent obsession with STEM disciplines and the tendency to approach higher education in instrumentalist, vocational terms has discouraged many students from pursuing other educational paths they may desire to follow. While it is reasonable for parents to want their child to be employable at the end of the four to six years they will spend in college, there is much to be said for what Joseph Campbell called following one’s bliss.

Forcing anyone to engage a course of study for four years that they may or may not be terribly interested in studying is tantamount to sentencing them to four years of minimal labor (because studies show that people simply do not engage studies that they really don’t want to undertake in the first place with any depth). Worse yet, with the entirety of one’s work life looming at the end of higher education, that’s an awful long time to do something one may or may not be interested in doing. There isn’t much joy in living into someone else’s dreams while foregoing your own.      

I have often told my students that “Smart people can do a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they should. What they should do is what they are called to do.” The only way to discover one’s calling is to listen carefully to what their life (gut, spirit, soul, religious deity) is telling them. That requires trusting themselves and their own experience, something many of them may not be accustomed to doing especially if they grew up in authoritarian households. It also requires committing to the time alone required to reflect and listen.

A good mentor will always ask a student whose dreams they are pursuing. They will try to get them to identify the values they hold. The fact a kid is good in science and math does not mean they necessarily should be an engineer or a doctor. The fact a kid was always argumentative with their parents as a child doesn’t make them future lawyers.

If a mere income sufficient to live in a style the student presumes to be normative, desirable or demanded of them is all they want, the quickest route to the best paying career may be all they are willing to seek. Bear in mind that we all have the right to live as minimal a life as we choose. The question we should always ask ourselves is why we’d choose that. A good mentor will always pose that question but remember that it is the student who must answer it.

Good mentoring will always require discussion of quality of life as well as quantity of income. And it is important for the mentor to know up front that s/he is often swimming upstream in such discussions in a consumerist culture that is marked largely by its pervasive superficiality.

·         Going home – Perhaps the toughest thing I ever did as a mentor was to pose the question to a student as to whether they are ready to be in college at this point in their life. Fair disclosure requires that I reveal that I left my own undergraduate education between my junior and senior year at the University of Florida to deal with some personal issues that had come to dominate my life and made full attentiveness to my studies impossible. A six month furlough working at Disney World was sufficient for me to get my head cleared and to come to the conclusion that my future did not lie in being a ride operator in a theme park. If I wanted to do what I felt called to do (teach), I would have to return to college and complete my 

     But there is an important post-scriptum to this story. After I decided I was going     to leave the university, I for some reason mentioned to a teaching assistant in    one of my classes that I was leaving. She didn’t ask a lot of questions. And she made no judgments. She did reassure me that I had to find my own way and that she understood. But then she added these words that changed my life: “It’s apparent to me that you are really very bright. And while I understand that you     can’t be here right now, you really are going to want to finish your education at    some point. You don’t have to promise me anything. But promise yourself that you will do that. And let me know when you get back.”

I did look her up when I returned to the University of Florida that next fall. I thanked her for sage advice to me and told her I was back. She just smiled. What I didn’t realize is that I would give that same advice to a handful of students in my own career as teacher and mentor. For the gift of that wisdom, I am in her debt.

It’s important to measure your words when you have this talk with a student. I am            always very intentional about the words “right now.” I reassure the student that it   is not their intellectual abilities that are in question. They are plenty capable of succeeding in higher education. But whether it is life circumstances or emotional state, it seems clear that it can’t happen right now.

I always phrase the next point as a question: Are you sure you really need to be   here right now? Their responses may well be no. I always offer the obvious   observation in such cases: The university is not going anywhere. It will be here when you are ready to come back.

But remember the drivenness factor. Some are working under timelines from parental budgets with all the conditions often attached to such “gifts.” Some fear they may not come back to school if they leave. And in some cases that is true though in many of those cases that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the truisms articulated by everyone from the president of the country to the president of IBM, college simply is not the right path for everyone.

Working with a student who has come to this conclusion requires putting our own sense of importance and value of a college education aside to be fully attentive to the needs of the mentee in front of us. It’s their life we’re talking about, not our own. Our life is normative for no one but ourselves. One size does not fit all, even in universities that more resemble mass production factories than the sacred groves of Plato’s Academy.

Be aware – Students are often looking for mentors even when they are not able to verbalize that. Moreover, you may well be functioning as a mentor without realizing you are doing so. Mentors don’t necessarily do anything differently than a good instructor would do. Taking interest in your students, trying to connect your subject material to their life experiences and their future interests, making time for them (and being on time for your appointments with them) all convey to the student that you are trustworthy and that they are important to you. That signals to them that they can take a chance on the vulnerability with the mentor required for a good mentor relationship to work.
  • Be genuine in your dealings with them. Know you will upon occasion screw up.
  • Be OK with that. It’s human and that’s part of the behavior you are modeling for   them. Admit when you’re wrong. It gives them permission to make mistakes without fearing being shamed
  • Offer examples from your own life experiences. It makes you more human and thus approachable. It also offers living proof that it is possible to survive even the darkest nights of one’s college years. But don’t forget that your experience is normative for exactly one person – you.
  • Don’t try to be BFF with your mentees. You can’t do that and they have all the BFFs they need and a horde of “friends” a mere flick of a touchpad away. Just be yourself. That is what the student is seeking. And bear in mind that the student you mentor today could well be your colleague in the future or at the very least    your life-long friend.

One of the great joys of being a mentor is watching your students take the world by storm upon graduation and become the great successes you always knew they would be. And in a profession often marked by substandard professional pay, unreasonable work conditions and increasing levels of public deprecation, helping students find their way to successful lives is one of the few remaining moral rewards left to college instructors. You should take this very seriously. The students whose lives you touch certainly do.

© Harry S. Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div., eds. Sierra Skye Gysler, Christopher Clukay (August 2015).

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

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