Are You My Mother?

Are you my Mentor?

For most of my life, I was the one being mentored – by my parents, friends, faculty. It all began to change when I entered the job market. I had two monumental transitions in my life – getting my first university job and becoming a parent. As I gave my research presentation during the on-campus interview, I could feel my son kicking, but my journey of teaching self-examination and change has only just began. In retrospect, as I was learning to be a parent, I was also learning to be a teacher, and, ultimately a mentor.

As every new parent knows, after the baby is born, you start counting time in days, then in weeks, eventually graduating to thinking in months. Just like that, I was realizing that teaching is not about today’s lecture or the lessons to take after an entire semester, teaching and learning, much like parenting, are long-term propositions. Teaching is also about receding in the background (even when you want to step in and save the day), allowing student voices to stand on their own, making their own mistakes, laughing and crying at some of the challenges together. Ironically, being a parent also brought me closer to students; as our first born child grew, the age difference between students and my kid narrowed down. In a sense, I know more about students now than I did when I was five years older than them. Mentoring become a part of my changing focus on teaching — think about learning (not just teaching), think long term, think growth.

When several of us became a part of the GPS (Gateway to Phuture Success) – a program designed to help students to successfully navigate first year in college — last Fall, we learned that the major component of that experience would be mentoring. Obviously, I already believed that mentoring is important, but what makes a good mentor? Is it listening and being supportive? Trying to fix student problems? Modelling behavior? Eating together? Sharing stories with them? Even a nice hard-cover book I have in my office (The Elements of Mentoring) does not give all the answers. I am still not sure what makes one a good mentor. What I do know is that it takes sincerity and humility on a part of the mentor (you cannot fake it) and you should be able to tell it “like it is.” But is genuine interest in our students enough? Should we be helicopter mentors or hands-off mentors or stern mentors? Does it depend on a student? How do we know what a particular student needs? Maybe this is the sign of an effective mentor – knowing who each student truly is? Are we ready for this task? Well, welcome to the very question that every new parent and, it turns out, mentor asks herself or himself and that often (maybe always?!) has so be answered on the fly, as we go.

Katia LevintovaKatia Levintova,
Associate Professor,
Public and Environmental Affairs

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