Allison McWilliams: Mentoring as teaching

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams

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

Effective mentors wear many hats. Sometimes the mentor is a teacher, sometimes a wise counselor. Smart mentors know how to read their mentees, identify what they need, and flex between roles or help to connect them to someone else who is better equipped to serve. Mentoring is always about the needs and the goals of the mentee, and helping the mentee to move forward towards achieving those goals. Mentoring happens in action and in conversation. Over the next few months I will use this space to look at four distinct roles that mentors may play, in service to his or her mentee: as teacher, as advisor, as wise counselor, and as connector.

First, though, it’s important to note that mentoring isn’t any one of these things. Mentoring isn’t teaching, but great mentors can adopt strategies of effective teaching into their practice, just as great teachers can adopt strategies of effective mentoring. For the purposes of this piece, we will look at the former: how do great mentors use the strategies of effective teaching in their mentoring relationships?

Great mentors base their mentoring conversations on a process of asking questions to promote critical reflection on experience and articulation of lessons learned. Often, they ask more questions than they will provide answers, because the goal always is to get the mentee to a place where he or she can answer his or her own questions. In the classroom, a teacher uses a text to explore different subjects. In a mentoring relationship, the text is the mentee’s life, and the mentoring partners explore values, interests, strengths, and challenges.

Great mentors teach from their own experience. Mentoring is always experienced-based, which means that both parties bring past experience into the relationship, and they use that experience to deepen the connections and the learning. Individuals expect their mentors to have more experience, wisdom, and knowledge than they do around a certain topic or goal. Mentors draw upon this experience, wisdom, and knowledge to instruct their mentee on how to approach challenges and solve problems, and to achieve their goals.

Teaching is just one role that mentors play. Great mentors recognize when and how to flex in and out of these roles in order to support their mentee’s needs. The next time you’re in a mentoring conversation think: Is this a time to teach? Or is this a time to perhaps listen and to learn?