Get mentoring to work well

May 14, 1999

WHAT - Anyone taking on a new job or role needs a friend and guide to show them the ropes. Hazel Fullerton suggests how mentoring schemes can help lecturers find their way and flourish.

WHY - Jobs in higher education are ever more demanding, changing and stressful. Universities are starting to introduce mentoring schemes to support staff in their probation period.


In providing mentoring for a probationer an institution is saying: "We know you have the capacity to do this job, but it will be different from what you have done before. We are not leaving you to sink or swim, this processes is going to help you fulfil your potential."

They might well add, "and meet our needs".

In addition to the moral responsibility an institution has to ensure their staff can cope, it is in their interests to have them swimming as soon as possible. A mentor gets them afloat and helps them become independent as confidence and competence build.

Teaching is one of the professions that most needs this support. Being on show to large numbers of students who are easily unimpressed calls for high levels of these attributes. Whether new lecturers are joining from a career in industry or are coming freshly with a gleaming new PhD, they can easily assume they know about higher education because they have been there.

They are unlikely to be aware of how things are changing or of all the dimensions, potential and pitfalls. A course in learning and teaching is a lifeline and a mentor can tailor and target it precisely. It helps the lecturer, it helps the learning.

A mentor is really needed from day one, if not before. Paradoxically, all the research says that the person to be mentored - the mentee - should choose their own mentor but on day one they do not know their colleagues sufficiently to make an informed choice.

A well-organised induction period during which they meet a wide range of staff in more than one context can help. Advice on choice of mentor should steer them away from their line manager, as few readily admit problems or failures to the person who completes their probation form.

Cynics are also best avoided, life is hard enough. Better advice is to look for a colleague the mentee trusts and where there is some rapport. Often someone who has been in a similar post in the past few years is a good choice, they will remember problems and feelings as well as having explored solutions.

The older, respected lecturer also makes an excellent mentor, their long view and knowledge of the system and the politics is gold dust, and at this stage in their career they are ready to hand over the baton.

Practicalities also play a part. It is very hard to be an effective mentor if you are geographically separated. Mentors need to be on hand for first aid in moments of crisis, for counselling in periods of doubt and for celebration of the good times. The mentor who pops a head around the door most days can pick up the signals and knows when to follow through and suggest a chat or the pub.

This in itself is not enough. Regular meetings are essential to pick up issues and reflect more generally.

It does not seem to matter if meetings are short and often, or long but infrequent, it is the knowledge that there is going to be a specific time to work something through that sustains. At different times a mentee has different needs, sometimes it may be a role model to inspire them or someone they can absorb the culture from, at other times they need safe opportunities to let off steam and someone prepared to act as a sounding board.

Once the choice of mentor is made it is important to arrange an early meeting to share expectations of the relationship and the process. It is worth writing an agreement about confidentiality, frequency and length of meetings, coverage of meetings, how "an agenda" will be set and how long the mentoring itself will last.

Procedures will vary in time but it is important at the outset that each knows what the other expects.

The content will vary if the new member of staff is attending a course or undertaking professional development, there will be a number of tasks to discuss. For example, there may be profiling at different stages, a learning agreement, decisions about what to put in a portfolio, thoughts and reflections to be digested, ideas to be bounced about and the conversion of theory to practice.

The mentor is the best person to help construct meaning from the course and to relate it to context. Undertaking observations of each other's teaching does this well.

New lecturers, as well as every other lecturer, learn an enormous amount from seeing how others do it and having the opportunity to interrogate that practice with the practitioner. They also learn a great deal from being observed themselves. These reciprocal arrangements provide shared experiences and form a basis for discussion and debate.

One the greatest pressures for new staff is time management. They must juggle preparing lectures for the first time, handling large numbers of students, research expectations, assessment, marking, administration, attending a course and producing a portfolio while many are coping with a young family. The mentor can be a lifeline in helping the mentee to prioritise and get a sense of perspective.

This article started with the premise that mentoring is needed in an increasingly demanding profession. The fact that new staff can see how beleaguered their colleagues are often makes them unwilling to ask the mentor of their choice to take on something else.

A list of those in their department prepared to mentor can help. In fact, research shows that only a tiny minority of those asked decline. The rest undertake the role willingly and responsibly. Perhaps it is the nature of those who are selected, perhaps those coming into higher education are altruistic or perhaps it is simply they have a broad commitment to learning. Almost certainly it is not because of what the mentor sees they will get out of it.

Yet, evaluations consistently note that mentors gain more from the relationship than mentees. It is the process and reflection that seems to pull off this water-to-wine trick. Reviewing practice through the lens of another is a revealing process and exposure to different ideas coming through from training and fresh blood is refreshing. Although lecturers do reflect and know why they do things, having to articulate it to another sharpens the vision.

The relationship changes over time. At the start the mentor is definitely the guide and helper but the stimulus of questioning and new ideas creates another dimension and mutual benefits emerge.

Although it is important to agree the length of the mentoring period at the start and to celebrate its achievements at the end, it is rare for a relationship to terminate there.

Most become colleagues in the best and fullest sense of the word and many long-lasting friendships are forged. As well as these clear benefits, mentors will usually add it to their CV and cite their contribution when applying for promotion. This is regarded as valid and valued.

To make mentoring work:

* Give the mentoring scheme a formal status in the institution

* Inform mentees of the benefits

* Help in the choice of mentor and make sure everyone has reasonable expectations

* Through staff development, training and written materials, explain the benefits to mentors and clarify what is expected of them, suggesting activities and processes

* Recognise the time and commitment mentors make and take it into account when allocating responsibilities

* Make the scheme formal enough to ensure that it happens, but not so formal that it monitors the process between intelligent, consenting adults at least one of whom already has refined tutoring skills

* When the scheme matures and the institution feels confident, consider how to extend it.

Other professional staff at the front line need this kind of support. So too do managers. It is particularly hard for them to admit uncertainty and research indicates that they would welcome being mentored as they take on a management role. That is in everyone's interest. Who wants a manager who is out of their depth?

Hazel Fullerton is head of educational development services at the University of Plymouth.

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