Allison McWilliams: Scaffolding skills

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams is assistant vice president, mentoring and alumni personal & career development. She writes occasional articles for Inside WFU. This is the second for the spring semester.  In each she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff from her professional experiences with students.

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!” This classic line delivered by Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Their Own can be (and has been) applied to any number of situations. And it’s a great description of the particular skills and abilities required to participate in any effective mentoring relationship. Many organizations presume that a mentoring program will be the cure to any and all ills, only to discover that a poorly-planned and ineffectively-executed program does more harm than good. Many people think that they can be great mentors, only to discover that they lack the commitment, time, or experience to do the work.

The good news is, the skills required to do mentoring well can be learned, practiced, and developed. And that goes for mentees, as well. None of us are perfect when it comes to mentoring. The very essence of mentoring relationships is that they are learning-oriented, and that means that we all are constantly developing our skills. Every relationship provides an opportunity to learn, to seek out feedback, and to reflect on opportunities for growth.

As mentors, one of our responsibilities is to help our students to grow in their self-awareness and ability to seek out and engage in productive relationships by scaffolding these skills. What does that mean? Just like in the classroom, each relationship, each mentoring conversation is an opportunity to build upon the learning that has happened previously, so that there is a trajectory of growth from the beginning of the relationship to the end, and from the beginning of a student’s time here until and beyond the time that he or she graduates.

The good news is, the skills required for effective mentors and mentees aren’t complex. We have created a set of mentoring learning outcomes for both mentors and mentees, as well as a set of self-evaluations, which can serve as a guide to that learning and growth. The skills aren’t complex, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. But mentoring shouldn’t be easy. After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it, and do it well. But the hard is what makes effective mentoring truly great.