The George Lucas Educational Foundation Edutopia

Reflections: What Constitutes a Good Mentoring Relationship?

In preparing this issue, we asked several friends and colleagues to share their thoughts with us about the qualities that make a good mentor and mentoring relationship. What we heard underscored how powerful and moving this ostensibly simple interaction can be for both parties.

Perhaps the most common response was that mentoring is a two-way street, an interaction that works for both mentor and mentee. "Both parties benefit from the exchange," says Bonnie Bracey, a member of the National Advisory Board for the George Lucas Educational Foundation. "I think mentoring is a two-way street," agrees David Thornburg, Ph.D. "Everyone I have worked with in this capacity has taught me at least as much as I learned." Thornburg is the director of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development. "It's not a one-sided relationship," adds Nathan Gebhard, co-creator,

From "Parenthood" to Parity

Reaching for an analogy, many responses mentioned parenthood, along with such affective qualities as trust, affection, patience, and warmth. "Kids don't care how much you know, they know how much you care," is how Bill McGrath, PhD. puts it. McGrath is an associate professor in the school of education and human services at National University. "The best mentorship derives from, and is sustained by, a deep, affectionate regard, and a desire to understand as well as to guide," concurs George Brackett, lecturer and director of the Technology in Education Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Some of our correspondents also see the mentoring relationship as being unique in a way that evokes the link between parent and child. As Harvard's Brackett puts it, mentoring is "highly specific to the identity and character of the person being mentored." Just as no two children require an identical parenting style, explains Cheryl Crumpler, Ph.D., a human development specialist with Healthy Potentials, in Davis, California, "no two students are ever identical and learn in the same way." Crumpler also points to the empathy and selflessness that she locates at the heart of good mentoring. It is the essence of the mentor's job, she feels, to bring empathy to bear, to understand who the mentee is, and then "tailor your style to reach him or her." It is this willingness to identify with one another, she believes, that produces the mutual respect that is fundamental to making a good mentoring relationship work.

Mutual respect is indeed central, agrees Gens Johnson, Ph.D., and is the antidote to bad mentoring. "It's important that neither the mentee nor the mentor feel that they are being 'used' or manipulated," Johnson explains. "I've seen internships that were defined as 'mentored' that were actually used as cheap labor by the mentor and simply a quick route to a job recommendation by the mentee."

Along with mutual respect, and "a shared enthusiasm for the area of expertise being shared and developed," Johnson continues, mentors also need to be "accessible, knowledgeable, 'connected,' encouraging, and willing to offer constructive, although perhaps gentle, criticism and guidance." Johnson is director, DTV Planning & Learning Services for Idaho Public Television.

Another key to good mentoring is walking the talk, or congruence of speech and action. Good mentors, says Rocky Rohwedder, say what they mean and mean what they say. They have integrity. "From most of my mentors," said Rohwedder, "I learned far more from what they did than what they said. Rohwedder is a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California.

When mentoring works best, these aspects of the interaction--empathy, mutual respect, personal integrity--tend to move it away from a quasi-parental interaction and toward a type of interpersonal equality, or, as Jere Confrey puts it, symmetry. Confrey, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Texas, Austin, thinks a good mentor is one who can "guide the mentee towards parity with him/her through the educational process."

Achieving this symmetry can be tricky, especially when the basic work of mentoring conspires to maintain the mentor in the role of authority. "Good mentoring includes connecting properly and effectively with the field--helping mentees to meet established scholars, advising them to go to important meetings, choose good journals, and clarifying how to locate their work effectively in the field, helping them to get grants, doing co-authoring," says Confrey.

Caring, symmetrical, and ... what else? According to many responses, the most memorable mentors tend to have a lively side too, a clear sense of joie de vivre. "Approachable and open, easy to talk to, and often fun,"says Marian Shaffner, technology coordinator at St. Brendan School in San Francisco, California.

Working together, all of these factors contribute to a powerful type of interpersonal learning, a kind of rapport or bond that works in subtle but highly effective ways. This is the point at which, as Shaffner puts it, one can "see the questions behind the questions," the point at which, as David Thornburg notes, coaching rather than directing is needed. "Instead of making a direct comment on the mentee's work," he suggests, "ask him/her to evaluate the situation his/herself, comment on its success/failure, and speculate on what might be done differently next time."

Finally, some of our colleagues make it clear that good mentoring happens online as well as in person. "Good mentoring relationships are based on trust--the trust that mentors and mentees will be kind, supportive, forgiving, and responsive," says Frank Odasz of Lone Eagle Consulting. "And effusive warmth and loyalty can easily be shared online, regardless of having never met in person." Recalls Bonnie Bracey of one of her own mentors, "Online or face to face, it's a joy when we work together." More than a decade ago, says Odasz, "half-a-dozen remote, rural schools in Montana found 7th- and 8th-grade students being mentored on chaos theory mathematics by Dr. George Johnston from the Plasma Fusion Lab of MIT ... text-only, at 1200 baud, with $18/hour long-distance phone tolls, via Apple IIes, and it worked wonderfully!"

The Rainbow: A Mentoring Story (contributed by Rocky Rohwedder)

"Billy, a special education student, used to stare into the aquarium in the classroom every afternoon. He could stand there for hours, even though we only had two fish and a little ceramic castle. On several afternoons the strangest thing would happen--he would break into a state of euphoria, jump up and down and scream 'the rainbow, the rainbow!' He was so excited and enthusiastic he was disturbing the rest of the class. When we looked into the aquarium we didn't see any rainbow, so we had to pull Billy away, calm him down, and placate his 'inappropriate' euphoric behavior.

"Then one afternoon the other teacher had all the kids outside playing and I was down on the floor picking up some math blocks. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a blaze of color. When I turned to see what it was, looking UP in the aquarium I saw the most brilliant rainbow I have ever seen. At the right angle, from the right perspective (which was of course how Billy had seen it) the glass, water, and sunshine produced an absolutely incredible rainbow! Without hesitation, I instinctively leaped to my feet, jumped up and down, and screamed 'the rainbow, the rainbow!' Finally, I had seen what Billy was trying to show us all these months. Finally, by seeing the world from HIS perspective, I got it.

"So, the moral of the story for me is that a good mentor should always seek to see the world from the view of their mentee. From their perspective you may find yourself instantly transformed from 'teacher' to 'student,' and you may grasp a glimpse of some of the most amazing things you will ever see or know."

Mentoring at its best, then, embodies the heart of great teaching: it is a dance of learner and teacher, of two minds and hearts engaged in mutual inquiry, dialogue, exploration. It is a process that holds the power to inform, reveal, delight, and sometimes even transform. As these brief excerpts show, mentoring is one of the keys to an education that is vital and effective, an education that creates the kinds of experiences that touch and change learner and teacher in deep and important ways.

Back to top