The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook: Mentor's Edition
Sandra Gandarez and Julia Vance
The following chapter consists of excerpts from students working as mentors discussing issues they faced in their unique placements. A variety of solutions are considered through the lens of readings addressing the issues in a broader sense.
The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook: Mentor’s Edition
Throughout our lives we encounter difficulties that we have to face with diplomacy and a method that will result in a successful outcome for those involved. Many situations in the educational world have common underlying themes. These encompassing issues are important for students who are looking to enter the educational field to become familiar with as there are frequent connections between them. As teachers encounter many varying problems, they must think quickly and thoroughly to ensure that a miniscule problem does not gain momentum and become a larger and more difficult issue. There are several reoccurring issues that we have noticed among mentoring partnerships and in several readings as important and thus that warrant attention. The next five sections are excerpts from mentors in mentoring partnerships and other similar educational settings. Issues were encountered that impeded their forward movement to success. Each has individualized information that can be taken out of context and applied in similar situations. The options and suggestions provided are just that; options and suggestions. Each mentee is unique, which is why getting to know a partner on a personal level is paramount to starting a partnership with them. Personal relationships are important in these partnerships; it is the first concern addressed.
Mentor and mentee relationships may be difficult to establish as well as to maintain and strengthen, but the benefits are plentiful to both parties. In the following excerpt from a field journal, a student describes an experience mentoring an older student where he experiences several complications that commonly appear when fostering a relationship such as this.
“This placement is my first experience working with someone older than myself in a mentoring role. Though I now realize that my mentee is dedicated to learning basic computing skills, I cannot seem to stop worrying about belittling him. I think about how I would react if someone younger than me was teaching me something new, especially something that almost everyone knows, and how much my pride would inhibit the learning of it simply for the reason that I would not want to admit that the younger person knew more than I did. Again, though I am certain this is not the case, based on actually going to the placement and interacting with my mentee, I still cannot help but be worried about it. It is also worrisome that, being much younger than my mentee, we will not be able to relate at all and thus have a strictly business-like relationship. Having limited relationships with older people outside of my family makes me unsure of how well I can actually get along with an older person.”
The mentor is cognizant of the difficulties faced in the relationship and realizes that it may be difficult as well as uncomfortable for his mentee to seek assistance from a younger source. Realizing and empathizing with the issue of pride allows the mentor to understand the situation as well as approach it in a respectful manner. The student must call upon his intelligence to address the situation, since, “Intelligence is what is called on when an agent doesn’t already know what to do.” Because this was the first time the mentor had been in this situation, it is clear that it must be approached diligently and with many considerations in mind. This is an example of a situation where intelligence would have to be relied on rather than experience, since the mentor has none in this situation.
One reason why this approach is beneficial is that “… intelligence is all about being able to initiate the next move in real-world situations. It is located in the space of activity, where the agent meets the world.” Witnessing and experiencing unanticipated events is helpful in an educational setting because it prepares one for the future. In this situation, the mentor is dealing with real life issues that may be encountered at some point in their future, either within an educational setting or the world in general. Being able to move past certain roadblocks is part of the learning experience that many teachers have trouble with in their first years of teaching. The mentor has addressed this situation of inequality well by stating: “I feel that the best way to ensure that I do not do this is to learn with him, rather than just teach to him.”
A partnership requires personal interaction. Herman and Mandell comment on this issue in From Teaching to Mentoring when they said, “… what distinguishes the mentor-student relationship from that of professor and students is “care.”” (134) This point is an important one to make because of the fact that though one acts as a mentor, it is still possible to be a student’s friend and care about their well being and personal lives. In fact, a partnership can be more effective in terms of a personal connection as long as it does not go beyond a certain point. The mentor mentioned fears that the assumptions held about their positions would force him and his mentee into a “strictly business-like relationship.” With time and work, a comfortable balance can be found between being solely a mentor and a friend.
There are several reasons why a mentor should not become too personal and involved with their mentee. One of these is that “Apart from the fact that we lack the professional skills, we should not become too involved in our student’s lives for other reasons. Absorbing academic learning into psychotherapeutic learning or “growth” would also shrink the social economic, political and cultural dimensions of human life into strictly personal terms.” A relationship that has become more of a friendship than a partnership loses some of its vigor and force because of the perceived lax rules and requirements. None of a mentor’s comments or conversations should be so unclear as to be misconstrued or misinterpreted.
Another aspect of the division between mentor and friend is “… learning to respect [your mentee’s] particular kind of privacy.” Some mentees may not be comfortable bringing their personal life into an academic or employment setting. Though some sort of personal attachment will “enhance the significance of the academic content,” it is important to have boundaries that the mentor and mentee both agree on in the relationship. Respecting the mentee’s boundaries surrounding their personal life is important, but they should not be rebuffed at the slightest mention of their personal lives. Just as there is a balance between mentor and friend, there must be a balance between the personal and the academic. This is inclusive of personal boundaries as well. While being a friend and mentor is important in any partnership, there should never be physical contact or conversation that may make someone uncomfortable. The crossing of this physical boundary completely obliterates any division of the personal and academic that the partnership may have been built upon.
How to help a mentee without putting them down and patronizing them is important in this situation since the age difference can make many partners feel embarrassed. It must be remembered that, “A vital part of being “educated” is to be aware of what is being taken for granted and be able to uncover what has faded into the backdrop of activity.” Being able to realize that some aspects that are second nature to the mentor may be completely unknown to the mentee may be the difference between success and failure. Realization of this makes one more aware of the situation and the steps needed to reach a goal. Such simple assumptions, such as assuming someone knows how to use a mouse or keyboard when they do not, can be detrimental to a relationship. This is an aspect in which personal, and even strictly academic, conversation is necessary. Finding out the limits and extent of knowledge surrounding a particular topic allows mentors to come into their partnership fully informed and prepared for their particular mentee and not reliant on a generic plan that should fit, but may not.
As education students and future teachers, a significant amount of learning comes to us from current teachers who are products of the journey that we are taking. Through placements with these mentors in a school setting, it is possible to put into practice the concepts learned in class. We do not expect to be the same as these teachers, to have the same likes and dislikes or personalities. Ways to form relationships are found and the focus is on the main commonality, a love of teaching and learning. However, in a placement setting the differences we encounter may be just too much to handle and begin to interfere with the quality of the learning experience. Disagreement may arise, for example, with the curriculum, for example, or the treatment of the students. Because we see our role as a guest in the classroom, it is hard to decide when it is time to step in and confront the teacher and how to do this while still remaining respectful. In the following example, a student is placed in an after-school classroom with students with various mental diagnoses. When she witnesses what she sees as unacceptable treatment of these already fragile children, she begins to feel uncomfortable.
“The teacher, Ms. A., was an interesting figure to me because she could be very nurturing and motherly at times, putting an arm around a child or asking them soothingly to tell her what was wrong (as when H began to cry frequently), but she also made several comments to the kids that I found derisive. For example, when H finished a very carefully colored cupid and began cutting it out, Ms. A. remarked, “I told you to let me help you, you’re just going to mess it up now,” and H reluctantly let her cut it out for her. I found this cut into H’s self-esteem, something that was already clearly low. And there were other chiding comments that did not seem to greatly affect the children, but seemed to me hurtful. To S, who returned from the dentist with her face too swollen to talk much, Ms. A. said, “I wish you went to the dentist everyday so you would be this quiet.” In another instance she jokingly told one of the girls who was deliberately pestering her “Oh I’m going to hit you! Did you hear me? I’m going to hit you,” and followed it saying, “You know I’m joking, I wouldn’t hit you.” This made me feel very uncomfortable because maltreatment is a very real issue for these kids.”
The prominent issue presented in this example is the conflict between teacher and student, mentor and mentee, on the issue of treatment of students. Because of the fragile emotional state of these children, the student feels she cannot ignore what is going on, but does not know how to proceed in a respectful manner. If she chooses not to face this issue, the unspoken disagreement and hostile atmosphere will most likely interfere with the successfulness of the placement for both parties. More importantly, the issue must be brought to light for the protection of the children involved. Once the decision to take action is made, the student must find a way to do this in a respectful manner in which they do not make it seem as if she is the superior person in the relationship. The aim of this student is to not make the teacher feel threatened or confronted, but rather to create and open dialogue surrounding the disagreement.
One way to solve this problem would be to work on communication within the relationship between student and teacher. If the situation is as worrisome as the student finds it to be, it should not be dealt with in the spare five minutes at the end of the day or a lull in the action of the classroom. A suggestion would be to have a weekly meeting time in which events of the classroom and outstanding questions can be addressed. This would also provide a time to comment on anything that may be causing a rift in the relationship in a non-confrontational manner. This solves the problem of the student not being able to find the right time to bring up her worry to the teacher. Scheduling a meeting time, whether it is in person, by phone, or by e-mail, allows both the classroom teacher and student private time that is specially designed to problem solve. This one-on-one time may also be successful in fostering a stronger relationship between student and teacher so it is less difficult to talk about events that caused any uneasiness.
Disagreements are bound to happen within the student-teaching setting. It is necessary, however, to take time to reflect on any worrisome situations, whether by talking with a fellow student, a teacher, or exploring the problem within field notes. Through a stable relationship and communication with the teacher whenever possible, these problems will be able to be solved in a cooperative and timely manner. Though it may take time, effort, and some awkward situations, a former Bryn Mawr student said it best when she wrote, “pushing beyond those differences to see your teacher’s best practices and successes will ultimately be incredibly useful to you both as an extra-classroom teacher and a future educator.”
Motivation to complete obligatory schoolwork is an issue that all teachers deal with at some point. Whether it is a kindergartener who does not understand why they need to learn to color inside the lines or a high-school student who sees no point in learning how to solve algebraic equations, motivation is a prominent part of the educational system. Even adult learners who return to college can encounter conflict with the curriculum and their motivation to complete it. In Herman and Mandell’s From Teaching to Mentoring, the story of a student, Jim, and his professor is outlined. Jim has the ultimate goal of his promotion at work in mind, and in regards to the general courses he must take to get a degree, he sees them as “courses that aren’t going to help me that much.” It is the role of teachers and mentors to find the root of the motivation problem, which may be unique for each student. The following vignette describes a student’s struggle with a high school student who, like Jim, fails to see the practicality of much of his schoolwork.
“I work with a high school senior each week. We first work on his senior project (research paper required for graduation), and then we work on improving his basic math skills. The past few weeks I have had to deal with the student finding very little motivation to work at improving his academic skills in these two tasks. He expresses a sense of complacency with the type of student he is and the academic level he is performing at, and has really pushed back at some of the academic work that we are doing. One week he focused on just finding a way to reach the bare minimum grade level to pass his senior project, and he commented on how useless he thought the math work we were doing would be because he believes he will never need to use it. The next week he continually referenced a desire to quit school, saying, “What is the point…one quarter can’t make up for two quarters”, in reference to having failed two quarters already and sitting no better than a C average in his current semester. The student has continually failed to see any real-life value in his academic work, no matter how I break it down, what I stress, or what I say. He puts forth minimal effort to complete his work, as a result, and it is frustrating because we have had moments where things really click and how smart and capable he is becomes evident.”
As with every student or mentee, the first step that needs to be taken is to explore the different issues that could be causing this lack of motivation. It may indeed be that the student does not see the need to complete his senior project, perhaps because the profession he seeks has nothing to do with his paper topic. However, there are many other facets of this student that his apparent lack of motivation may be hiding. Because of his low grades, the student may be self-conscious that other students see him as “stupid”. If he can attribute his troubles to his own choice not to work hard, then he can rationalize the problem and put it in his control. It may be worth exploring this student’s learning style, or if this is too large of a task, conversing about his work with a trusted teacher. Similarly, giving the student tasks in which he can succeed may help to build his confidence in the school setting and his ability to achieve in the classroom.
Similar to the issue of authority outlined before, communication is another way to attempt to solve the motivation problem. If the mentor is able to create a trusting environment, it may be possible to ask the student or have him disclose what is causing his lack of motivation. Through this communication, any difficulties the student may have with the educational system may be uncovered. For example, it is a possibility that the “rigor” the school imposes on this student is not right for him. As Melody Shank says in her article Striving for Educational Rigor, “Rigor is part of the “grammar of schooling”; one of the assumptions of “real” school.” This assumption, though beneficial for some students, may be harming this student’s sense of self and in turn his ability to motivate himself to succeed.
Patience and flexibility
As a mentor, teacher, parent, daughter, son, brother, sister or student, we learn an infinite amount of patience when it comes to learning or teaching a new topic. This experience is necessary when working with students with a limited background on a given topic since many people do not pick up immediately on a new subject. Mentors also need to have flexibility and availability when preparing lesson plans and need to be able to take suggestions from their mentees on topics that should be covered, since the mentee knows what they wish to learn best. The following description of an interaction shows a time when it was important for the teacher to practice patience and flexibility in a somewhat frustrating situation.
“Joy mentioned that she was a slower typist. I asked if she would be interested in touch-typing as a part of this course. Before our meeting today, I explored some “learn to type” websites thinking they might be an option for us. However, Joy said that typing was at the bottom of her priority list since she doesn’t use the computer for typing documents or entering great quantities of text. Thus, the typing idea I had isn’t the best
The homework assignment wasn’t excessive but it took us the entire hour because Joy tells me stories about her life and experiences as they connect to what we do on the computer. I love to get to know her as a person, but I’m unsure of how to politely say, “We really need to get back to the homework,” because I’m afraid that that will prevent her from enjoying the course and feeling comfortable with me.”
An important aspect of being a mentor is working in a partnership rather than a traditional teacher-student relationship. Being able to interact with a mentee is made a success by thinking of ways that both parties can benefit from the situation, such as when their personal lives are discussed. As we see with our mentor above, the mentee benefits from allowing the mentor to know what she already knows, what she wants to learn and why she wants to learn it; the mentor benefits by being aware about goals the mentee has from the beginning so they can work on reaching those goals and avoid making assumptions.
A guiding principle in this type of relationship is that, “Not only can one not really impart knowledge to another, all of us take our own time to learn. Waiting for ourselves and each other, is an essential aspect of dialogue.” Each student learns in differing manners and timescales, so keeping an open mind and tapping into a reserve of patience may become necessary. Whenever feelings of impatience or shortness with a mentee arise, it is helpful to remember times when you were challenged in an aspect of your academic life. Since it is impossible to simply hand over knowledge on a topic, it is important to take the time when teaching. This may also help the mentor to get a more in depth and complete understanding since many times teaching something is the best way to learn it.
Learning to be flexible with regard to lesson plans turned out to be difficult for the mentor since, as college students, typing is an integral part of being computer literate. This is where personal knowledge becomes important. If mentors are aware of the uses their mentees need the knowledge for, it will be easier to tailor the lessons to their particular needs. Being open to the mentee’s suggestions and possibilities allows for maximizing their gain, and therefore maximizing contribution to their “lifeworld”. It is also important to remember that “Mentors also need to accept that our students, adults who by and large already adeptly inhabit the lives they are here to enhance, do possess and will develop their own wisdom about ultimate ends.”(Page 98) The key to this is making sure mentors are enhancing the lives of their mentees and to ensure that this occurs, it is important to cover aspects they deem important. This goes against our own personal sufficiency perceptions because we all have opinions on what we believe everyone “needs” to know. To the mentor mentioned, typing was a skill that the mentee needed to acquire to be “sufficient” with computers. This is a bias that we cannot allow to interfere with the mentees goals since they are better equipped to know what will make them “sufficient” in their outside lives. For instance, if the mentee does not normally type but wants to learn to burn pictures onto CD’s, would that not rank higher on the lesson plan? In a worst case scenario, the mentor will cover the typing and not the CD burning, therefore teaching the mentee something they did not want to learn and missing out on something they did.
In the beginning of educational relationships, it may seem that the participants are completely separated from the outside world. The relationship exists only in the learning environment. However, after time, elements from both partners’ outside lives start to come into play. These factors are numerous and can include home life, prior educational experiences, and the partners’ personalities in general. One of the most debilitating factors that can emerge in a relationship is stigma or preconceived notions regarding the people or subject matter involved. The following excerpt from a field journal is a bit different in that it occurs in a reciprocal learning environment, where each person acts as both mentor and mentee, teacher and student. It is obvious, however, that the same issues regarding stigma that occur in this setting can occur in a classroom as well.
“Today we decided to try to bake chocolate chip cookies. Because of our last minute decision, we had trouble finding a kitchen to use. After getting permission to use a kitchen in a house on campus, we were able to begin baking around ten in the morning. A few people from the house came into the kitchen while we were there. The facilities workers who we were with said hi to each one and tried their best to be friendly. Their politeness was not returned by the girls who answered with frowns and asked if we could be quieter. It became so that each time a girl came in, the workers would nod their head and leave the kitchen until the girl had done what she needed to do. This got in the way of our being able to work together on our recipe and have time to catch up with each other about the past week.”
In this example of extra-classroom teaching, it is obvious that factors outside of the students’ control are having a detrimental impact on the relationship with their partners. Coming into the relationship, the workers had voiced their surprise that anyone would want to learn the skills they had, mainly electricity, plumbing, and HVAC. The relationship between these staff and the students of the school had always been a distant one where little interaction occurred. Therefore, creating an environment of mutual trust and interest was the first hurdle that had to be conquered. Though it had been addressed in passing, it was obvious that the staff members’ feelings of inequality with the students was still an underlying issue and one that was negatively reinforced by this interaction during their baking lesson.
Though it is hard to completely control for outside forces in an extra-classroom setting, these outside forces can be addressed through communication between the partners or those who were involved in the issue. Blatantly bringing up the awkwardness that went on in the kitchen may make the staff feel more uncomfortable, but changing how they are treated in the future is a good first step to solving the problem. In this situation, the student knew a resident of the house where the incident had taken place and talked to her about it. This student in turn expressed her concern at a house meeting. The house regularly cooks their own meals and decided it would be a good idea to invite the housekeepers and facilities staff to dinner to thank them for all that they do. A few girls disagreed with this idea, but in the end the dinner was approved by the house. Hopefully this will be a successful way to make up for past incidences of stigma and aid in the confidence of the workers that they are valued not only in their partnership but in the school community in general.
Though cataloguing all issues that mentors and teachers alike face would take an excessive amount of time and energy, this portion is meant to start off the journey of learning and growing as an educator and as a person. The task of addressing issues is different in every situation and is unique to the people involved, but there is enough consistency for at least a minimal engagement with the options provided. Through Mentor/Mentee Relationships, Authority, Motivation, Patience and Flexibility, and Stigma, there has been a constant theme of mentors trying to improve and attempting to right the wrongs they are witnessing happening to their students. The first step to realizing the goal of being a better educator and person is wanting to be a better educator and person. By the exploration of issues that impede the ultimate goal of learning, we can get closer to accomplishing this goal.
Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kaper. Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in
Complex Times. 2nd Ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 29.
Herman, Lee and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and practice, dialogue
and life in adult education. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Schneider-Krzys, Emily. Working With Classroom Teachers. 19 May 2005. 7 April 2009
Shank, Melody J. "Striving for Educational Rigor." Lesko, Nancy. Masculinities at School.
London: Sage Publications, n.d.
 Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kaper. Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times. 2nd Ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2008). Developed by Jean Piaget in The origins of intelligence in children(New York: W.W. Norton, 1936/1963), 194.
 Ibid, 130.
 Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principles and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. (New York and London: Routledge Falmer, 2004) ,134.
 Ibid, 118.
 Ibid, 132.
 Ibid, 117.
 Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kaper. Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times. 2nd Ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 29.
 Emily Schneider-Krzys, Working With Classroom Teachers, 19 May 2005, 7 April 2009 <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/edtech04/expanding/ed225s05/handbook.html>.
 Lee Herman and Alan Mandell, From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education (New York: Routledge, 2004), 191.
 Melody J. Shank, "Striving for Educational Rigor," Nancy Lesko, Masculinities at School (London: Sage Publications, n.d.), 213.
 Lee Herman and Alan Mandell, From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education (New York: Routledge, 2004), 70.
 Ibid, 98.