Mentorship: The Gift that Gives

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    Mentorship, a practice that has been around since antiquity, is observed in Homer’s Odyssey, in the form of Athena guiding Telemachus. In ancient religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, gurus and elders guide others in traditions and practices. Disciples in Judaism and Christian followed mentors and learn the ways of the faithful. Medieval guild masters mentored apprentices in the arts and crafts of the time. In more modern times, mentorship has become associated with business and the development of entrepreneurial planners and thinkers. Modern teacher education preparation programs use mentorship of classroom teachers to prepare interested persons as teachers. Among all of these mentors, there is a shared agreement that mentorship is a developed relationship between an experienced, more knowledgeable person, who agrees to assist and guide a less experienced person.

    The notion is that the mentee is the beneficiary of the process. However, in the case of mentoring undergraduate researchers, the benefit is mutual. This paper delineates the benefits gained by both undergraduate education majors and myself, as a mentor, in the process of guiding students to presentation and publication. A definition that guides this paper:

    Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (protégé). (Bozeman and Feeney, 2007)

    This definition implies that only the undergraduate researcher benefited from the relationship because I, the professor, was more knowledgeable. However, after years of mentoring undergraduate researchers, I perceived the process of one where I was the protégé, and the students were mentoring me. This was particularly poignant in the mentorship of the four students published in this section. In previous mentorship opportunities affiliated with the Eagle Feather and Scholars Day, I knew the students from a semester or two of classes, and had developed a relationship of trust that facilitated student success. However, for the first time, spring 2014, I was mentoring students I met just months before Scholars Day, and accepted the responsibility to mentor them through the process of presentation and publication. We had no class context, no shared research, just a will to develop the relationships that lead to their successes, publication in this journal. What follows is an articulation of the mutual benefits of mentorship.

    The Story

    Since 2008, undergraduate, elementary education students, placed in the Denton ISD schools, conducted Action Research in mentor teachers’ classrooms. During the years as coordinator of this Professional Development School program, I supported over 300 such projects, knew the students and mentor teachers, and could encourage participation in the Scholars Day and Eagle Feather publication. However, as of the fall of 2010, when away on a professional development leave, I rendered the leadership of the program into capable hands. Upon my return in 2011 I continued to teach courses in this PDS group, but as of the fall of 2013, no longer had a direct, instructional connection to the group. In spite of this, the new coordinator perceived the process of supporting presented, published work part of the PDS program for this group. We entered into an agreement of mentorship. I agreed to mentor the students through the research and writing process, and she agreed to encourage them to follow the mentorship when she saw them in the field. With less than 10 weeks of time to develop relationships, conduct individual research projects, and meet the Honors College deadlines for submission of presentation of papers, we began. 

    To accomplish our purpose, to get the students to conduct research that could be presented at the Scholars Day and for publication in The Eagle Feather, we followed the protocol of informal communication, conducted face-to-face meetings, and sustained continuous contact over the 10 weeks. Communication was in the form of a blackboard organization, texting, emails, phone calls (both office and cell), and coffee shop and taco stand visits. Students were free to contact me day and night, and use whatever means needed to get the job done, while holding themselves and the group together.

    Transmission of Knowledge

    Professor as Mentor

    Knowledge was transmitted to and from the students and me. When we met as a group in mid-January, the knowledge I transmitted was based on years of experience with Action Research, and what it takes to broker data collection in the living environment of an elementary school classroom. I also transmitted knowledge about organizational structures inherent in research, such as design, data collection, data analysis, and writing the paper as a cohesive whole. Knowing that rejection and rewrite are essential in all scholarly writing, I tried to transmit an air of support, even though I knew I would be rejecting ideas, writing, and asking for clarity, depth, and focus. Knowing that all four students had never experienced that type of demand on their writing, I relied on the emotional support the PDS coordinator provided when she saw the students in the field. The most important knowledge I transmitted was the knowledge that if the students stayed with the project and made it to Scholars Day and The Eagle Feather, that the benefits to their future plans as teachers were immeasurable. The transmission of knowledge from me to them was received with zeal, albeit laced with trepidation. Following our initial meeting, they all seemed very enthusiastic and committed.

    Students as Mentors

    The students transmitted knowledge to me in the form of knowledge about communication, learning styles, timing, and perceptions of research. I learned that blackboard, although the preference of the professoriate for communicating and sharing, has limited support when students have other options. Eight weeks into the time available to get the work done, I had received only two points of communication in Blackboard, in spite of the seemingly supportive structures within the context of the blackboard organization site we shared. Students preferred to text, call, or find ways to meet in coffee houses to talk about their projects, rather than submit in a blackboard drop box. They mentored me as I learned to communicate in a more fluid exchange that suited their sensibilities.

    Each student had a different learning style that contributed to my knowledge gain of how to differentiate my guidance of each student. Several students spent eight weeks enacting Action Research in the schools and contemplating what and how to write, leaving only two weeks for revisions prior to submission. However, this was in their learning style, rendering me the learner of the style, and as the mentee in learning how to reconcile guidance for students who adhered to this style. Several of the students submitted in blackboard regularly, were eager to keep up, and received continuous feedback with each new submission. These distinctions led me to learn that differentiating, following the students’ mentorship were essential in assuring their success.

    Not having met the students before we began the endeavor, it was difficult for me to know their perceptions of research. They taught me that their perceptions of research were considerably different from a formal research standard approach. Once they were invested in the project, they were eager to collect data, whether it aligned with the projects or not, followed leads from others, and in general, worked continuously to produce, albeit at times, outside the range of usable data.  By freely imparting this knowledge to me, I became a student of students’ perception of research, which then guided me to know how to apply supportive mentorship that lead to students’ success.

    This exchange strengthened all parties, both students and myself. We all learned that there are differences in perception of knowledge about conducting research, and that we can all benefit from knowledge that each of us transmits. The benefit in the end was growth for me as a mentor and successful presentations and publication for the students.

    Social Capital

    Professor as Mentor

    Social capital in education comes in the form of networking with teachers, principals, and professors to advance to teaching jobs that align with the students’ degree plans and teaching aspirations. From the inception of the project, I continually shared with the students the importance of representing themselves as scholars and the value of this to acquiring the jobs they desired. This was particularly challenging for the students to accept, since the bulk of their preparation in the program is focused on hands-on interactions with students, lesson planning, classroom management, and test preparation.  They rarely, if at all, hear teachers discuss research as a social capital in the schools.

    In spite of this, the four students published in this edition of the Eagle Feather Journal, accepted the mentorship that this would give them the social capital they needed to advance to teaching positions. They learned that when they shared their research experiences with principals, district personnel, and teachers, that their capital was increased. All reported that in interviews their Action Research was a topic of discussion and admiration by other teachers.  One of the four student authors, now employed as a first year teacher, has reported that her school is requiring all teachers to conduct Action Research. She reported that she is ready to begin and showed appreciation for the social capital she gained because of her experience in the Action Research to The Eagle Feather project. In essence, the students came to learn, through supportive mentorship, that principals and team teachers would value their research efforts.

    Students as Mentor

    Social capital in a university comes in the form of connectivity to personnel in like circles across the campus. The circles I sought to connect in were those filled with faculty and administrators who supported undergraduate research. I was mentored into these circles, by the students I served, who conducted undergraduate research, and resulted in presentations and publications. Their work led me to participate as an active, undergraduate research mentor, eventually participating in the decision-making for the Scholars Day awards and judging. In addition, I have served on multiple university committees and initiatives as a result of the social capital gained from mentoring undergraduate research. Without the students as vicarious mentors, this would not have been possible. 

    Psychosocial Support

    Erik Erikson (1950), after years of studying children and adults in social settings, under various psychological conditions, presented his perspective of psychosocial development in the form of eight stages. The eight stages represent a lifetime of age-related psychosocial crises, virtues, significant relationships, and existential questions. The last three stages, relate to the age groups of students and myself discussed in this article. The students, ages 20-39, were in stage 6. In stage 6, Erikson notes that adults are in a psychosocial crisis about Intimacy vs Isolation, the virtue is love, the significant relationship is with friends and partners, and the existential question is “Can I love?”  I, however, was in stage 7, in the psychosocial crisis of Generativity vs. Stagnation, the virtue of care, significant relationships of household and workmates, and the existential question of “Can I make my life count?” Our stage differences lent to our shared mentorship.

    Professor as Mentor

    Recognizing and accepting the students’ psychosocial stage at face value, it was important for me to understand that maintaining a love relationship and friendships were central to their psychosocial balance. I also knew that they wanted to feel included. Fortunately, all four students had been a part of consortium of learners, had been friends for 8 months to 2 years, and were highly supported by their cadre coordinator in classes and field placements. As their mentor, supporting their completion of research and writing, we initially conducted our sessions in friend groups. These initial sessions were held in public, relaxed venues, with open-ended questions and answers, establishing the notion that someone they did not know cared about their need to be included.  

    Once the students accepted me as someone who cared about them, I could meet with them individually to guide and support the revisions and development of their research projects.  However, throughout the process, there were times when it was more comfortable for a pairs or groups of students to meet in friend groups to discuss the projects, so we met in pairs or groups.  Supporting this psychosocial crisis of inclusion over isolation, by making them feel included, encouraged students to work to their potential. Balancing the notion of getting the job done and supporting their psychosocial needs can at times be daunting, particularly with deadlines looming. However, when the ego needs were addressed, the work followed.

    Students as Mentors

    The students seemed to recognize my psychosocial crisis of generativity vs stagnation. A quality of a generative person is contribution to the betterment of others in society. The students who participated in the project recognized my generative need. They recognized that I valued work and my concern for guiding the next generation. All of the students encouraged me to care about them and their development. Their positive responses caused the generative side of the crisis equation to emerge. Their support, in the form of thank you notes, kind words, and acceptance into their friendship circle, encouraged me to sustain and increase my care of them as they worked on the projects. I felt compelled to meet them wherever was convenient and comfortable for them. These meetings took on the forms of narrative electronic chats, face-time electronic chats, meetings in coffee houses, day and night, off campus and on. Their enthusiasm for their own growth and development mentored me to higher levels of care and support.

    Conclusion

    Mentorship, a practice as old as the world of human endeavor, is generally accepted as being passed down from older, well-versed, wiser, seasoned people. However, as noted in the story of the mentorship of four students published in this section, mentorship is potentially a shared experience. Using the Bozeman definition, the three components of mentorship: knowledge, social capital, and psychosocial support are potentially viable for both sides of the mentoring equation. The students in this project felt the effects of mentorship, and produced the articles for presentation and publication, supporting each other as friends and knowing that they were supported by a faculty mentor who cared. The social capital benefits to them were strong interviews, and eventually job acquisitions with ease. They all admitted that they had grown in knowledge of conducting research in schools and planned to continue.

    My growth as a mentor was a result of the mentorship from the students. Due to their participation, I grew in the knowledge of how this generation of students prefers to share information, and learned to follow their lead. In addition, because students participated in the project, my social capital grew in the university among faculty connected to the Honors College. Finally, my capacity to care and nurture others increased and was mentored by the kindness of students.

    Shared mentorship showed all of us in the project that keeping the group together while getting the work done results in all participants benefitting, albeit in varying ways. Electing to mentor undergraduate student research, coupled with students showing a willingness to do research can challenge both sides of the process. However, the balance between the two: people and project, requires a sensitivity, if carried out, rewards all involved. Awareness of each other, elevates the process and leads to heightened results. It was great fortune to have mentored these students. Their work here shows that they benefited as well. Needless to say, I would encourage other professors to seek opportunities to support undergraduate research at UNT. It will be worth the time.

    References