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I’ve worked with children and youth for more than 20 years. In that time I’ve been a child care worker, a youth activist, a junior high and high school teacher, a youth leadership coach, and a director of youth community theatre. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in that time, but I’m also happy to have learned a few things, things I’d like to share with you now.
My wife, who was a social worker for ten years and is now a psychologist, was very wise to remind me that when it comes to mentorship, nothing matters more than a strong personal bond between mentor and student. Over years in my role as a broadcaster, I’ve asked numerous guests, from famous actors and writers to political activists, “Who was your favourite teacher and why?” regardless of how you define “teacher.” I’ve received many touching and hilarious responses, but a couple of things stand out: nobody ever says, “This person was my favourite because she was the smartest,” or “He was my favourite because he was an expert.” My guests almost always stressed that their favourite teachers made them feel special, helped them to realise they had ability they didn’t know they had, believed in them, and guided them to become more personally able to reach their goals.
In the archetypes of myth that show up in popular culture, those types of mentors are beloved characters. Given my age and generation, the two who stand out most are Ben Kenobi from Star Wars and Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. And those examples force us to see something else about the personal bond. Ben guides Luke, and Mr. Miyagi guides Daniel. Both youth men are in pain, missing their fathers, and yearning not just for connection to something eternal (the Force or the martial arts), but for what an adult can give them: time, patience, affection, loyalty, sacrifice, and wonder. Yet each mentor, until he commits to his student, is living is isolation, is incomplete, is in need of someone with whom to share, is yearning for the chance to be loyal, affectionate and giving.
So that means that if your life is too full--if your career, your family, your hobbies or other pursuits take all or nearly all of your time, now is not the time to be a mentor, unless you’re able to bring your student into your archetypal garden to tend to the flowers, roots and trees with you. If you can’t, maybe it’s just that you can’t right now. In the meantime, you can keep reading up on mentorship so that when the time is right, you’ll be more ready.
So all of what I have to tell you today is based on my wife’s advice: the personal connection is the key.
Mentorship is very different from teaching a class.
Teaching is broadcasting. Mentorship is narrowcasting. With teaching, you’re trying to reach the broadest possible range of students in your classroom, regardless of their abilities, their tastes, their dispositions and their energy levels. When you mentor someone, you need to be as specific as possible to attend to this person’s needs. So lecturing doesn’t work. Not lecturing as you would a class, and not lecturing as you would a person who’s let you down and whom you want to punish with a big ol’ whap of the word-stick. No. Being a mentor isn’t so much about the Three Rs as it’s about the Five Ls.
The five Ls are Listening, Learning, Lending, Listing and Laughing.
Lecturing means talking at someone. But listening requires that you ask open-ended questions. You’re not looking for a right answer. You’re trying to understand what this person-in-need understands about herself and the world. And you’re trying to understand what she doesn’t understand and why. Instead of asking leading questions with leading intonations (“So, should you drink poison, or should you drink clean water?”), you have to check your tone. Try questions along the lines of:
“So, tell me about all the reasons that led you to that decision.”
“Sure it didn’t work out, but what were the best reasons to think it might have?”
“What can you take out of the experience so you’ll be more successful next time?”
“Tell me about skills you still need to acquire or sharpen.”
“Which personal qualities are your best assets?”
“Tell me about some of the personal qualities you’d like to change if you knew how.”
But listening isn’t simply firing questions at someone like an interrogator would. It’s about being attentive to someone’s facial expressions and body language. To the nuances of someone’s comments. To a laugh that masks sadness. To someone seeking approval--and why?--because he needs it. To someone who wants to get to know you more. Don’t restrict yourself to nuts and bolts of education and career. Make sure to ask--when it’s appropriate--about girlfriends or boyfriends, buddies, family, hobbies, passions, religion, favourite films, or favourite place to get a great milkshake, burger, roti or samosa.
Listening this way leads to learning someone’s boundaries. Although most people want to talk about personal matters with someone, not every student wants to discuss them with a mentor... at least, not too early on. But if you wait too long, the texture of your relationship may already have hardened too much to allow personal connection. So during your early conversations, ask a little about your student’s personal life, to see his or her reactions. Jot down notes after your meetings, so next time you know names and important facts. Few things build trust as much as people referring accurately to aspects of your life you’ve shared with them. So get to know this person’s passions, too, from literature to music to sports. You won’t find common ground on most of those areas, but all you need is one to grow your relationship and to understand better your student’s view of self and the world. And you might also learn something from your student along the way, which is another way to strengthen your bond.
Lending means being generous with time, with possessions, and even with forgiveness. You’ll be ready to be a mentor when you can give enough time, once a week, for a meal--and not a rushed meal, done in 59 minutes. A meal is a leisurely time when, without an agenda, you can talk in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Taking that time, especially over food (but not necessarily always), builds trust that you see you student as a human being whose company you enjoy, rather than a task to be checked from a list. Lending also means handing over books, albums or even a scarf from time to time, as you would with a friend or a niece or nephew, but more importantly, it means lending your forgiveness. Some people are perpetually late. That’s irritating. But it doesn’t mean this person doesn’t respect you. It might mean he’s a bit of a goof about certain things. If you’re honest with yourself, you know you’re a bit of a goof about a lot of things. And if you don’t know that, your spouse and colleagues do. If they’ve put up with you all these years, you can put up with a young person’s flaws for a few months.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have any boundaries. In fact, you must have boundaries to be successful as a mentor. Your student won’t be able to respect you if he or she can simply take advantage of you. So finding the balancing act can be tough. One way to do it is to be very clear at the beginning what your expectations are, and letting your student do the same. Some people aren’t very good with social cues, so if you don’t like people wearing hats in your office or home, say so immediately. Your irritated eyebrow won’t even register to your student. One way to share your peeves with your student is for both of you to write down lists of ten things to avoid... or better yet, ten ways to build trust and respect. That way you can keep things positive. The negative will simply be the opposite of your list.
Listing is also critical to figuring out what knowledge, skills, habits and attitudes your student wants to learn from you, but which of those you can actually help teach (and which will require another mentor, perhaps later on). Listing helps you keep track of what you plan to teach, and lets you figure out when, where, how and even why. Perhaps most importantly, listing provides you with a checklist, so you can determine whether you’ve accomplished your goals, and if not, what you need to review and reinforce.
Finally, laughing. Throughout everything you do, laughing will buff the jagged edges from failure. And remember, the only people who don’t fail are the people who don’t try anything new or daring. Show that you can laugh at yourself. And keep your laughter about as many positives as you can. When you laugh at others constantly (I don’t mean occasionally), you’re telling your student, Beware. The moment you leave the room, I could be raking you over the coals with my friends. Instead, share laughter about comedies, funny TV commercials, comic strips in the newspaper, jokes... pretty much anything. Of course, some people don’t laugh much, and you have to be true to yourself, and so does your student. But you’ll probably agree that you’d rather meet a mentor regularly who could make you laugh at least sometimes, or whom you could make laugh sometimes, rather than one who was so serious that neither of you ever laughed. You don’t have to be Robin Williams or Chris Rock. Just be yourself.
So that’s it. Listening, Learning, Lending, Listing and Laughing. Keep that going. Share what you learn with other mentors, and learn from them, too. And remember the Kenyan proverb: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.