In praise of mentors

It seems strange to praise something that I’ve never really had. Perhaps it’s because of that void that I somehow appreciate what I never had along with the positive impact it could have had. I’m talking about mentors.

One of the things that seems consistent throughout my years in education and in the civil service was the lack of a long term mentor. At school, college, university and in the civil service I can only think of one, maybe two occasions where I had a tutor/line manager in post for longer than a year. The only way I can describe the impact of having to go to church during childhood was that it poisoned my mindset, something that I’ve spent over a decade trying to overcome. Hence why my disposition towards large organisations trying to avoid transparency isn’t exactly “positive”.

So…mentors…what is a mentor? I could pull out a million-and-one definitions from cyberspace, but I prefer to go with the definition of “a person who provides support, advice, counsel and help to another person/s over an extended period of time.” That’s my own definition that I made up.

One of the things I’ve pondered on is where I’d have ended up if I had had a mentor or mentors throughout those formative years. On some days I may have ended up in a different place, while on others I end up in the same place – just having had perhaps a little bit more fun, endured life’s challenges more successfully or perhaps having achieved more in the process. The latter in particular because I say to myself that everything that happened throughout the 1990s would have been different if the internet had taken off in the early 1990s rather than the late 1990s. Earlier today I was watching archive coverage of England vs Tunisia from France 1998. At the time that match was being played, I was in an A-Level geography statistics exam, thus only caught the first five and the final ten minutes of the match. In part it still only feels like yesterday, while in others it feels like another world – a world without websites. The other aspect is the financial crises of 2008 onwards. Such is the scale that whatever path I would have chosen to have gone down, I could not have avoided the impact.

Where would the differences have been made? In part with music – I mentioned in the fifth-from-last paragraph in the blogpost I am the music man… that there was no one fighting for the cause of music at a time when perhaps I needed it the most. One of the things that strikes me about my school and college days was my insecurity and how I was strangely dependent on the views and opinions of those who, in the space of about five years would have disappeared off of my radar for good. What impact would the words have made of someone who was watching dispassionately from a safe distance who had been there, done that and had a few of life’s scars too?

The only time I recall of the authority of ‘school’ ever being challenged by other adults was when people from the world of ‘business’ came in to spend…about an hour or so with us. I think I managed about two hours or so in about…five years? We were sort of prepped by the teachers before being sent to face these people from the world of work, but as the teachers concerned were to retire in a couple of years and as this was before the major changes in education that came with Labour’s election victory in 1997, the difference between what we were taught at school about the world of work and what the people actually IN the world of work were huge.

Over 15 years later I ask myself whether having a cycle of students going through school, college, university, teacher-training and back into school is actually a good one, or whether just like my moaning about the Whitehall bubble, this is another one that could do with some external input into the day-to-day activities of schools beyond what governors do.

I say this not to kick sand in the face of teachers. Having just completed a course of teacher training in the post-16 sector, I now have an idea of just how much preparation and planning teaching actually involves. How many people think that teaching involves being able to rock up at 9am, teach and go back home at 3.30pm having had a much shorter day with longer holidays than everyone else? Chances are a good teacher will spend just as much time planning and evaluating as they do teaching. Such is the intensity of that job that I can see how it leaves precious little time to look at their students as rounded individuals with their own hopes, fears and dreams. Combined with government incentives that reward/penalise you on the performances of students in your subject and yours alone, who has the time for the ‘softer’ side of mentoring when every academic year feels like a firestorm?

I had no idea of what lay ahead in terms of post-16 education until long after beginning year 10 – by which time some of the work that I was doing was counting towards my final grades for GCSE. Within the first couple of weeks of starting sixth form college, talks were already being put on about what we were going to do when we left (in particular oxbridge applications) – whereas my mindset was “Hang on a minute, we’ve only just got here!” The college was already thinking about how many people it could get into oxbridge. But that was the final two years of free university education as the economy was coming out of recession. I cannot imagine that in the current climate of higher fees, the greater promotion of apprenticeships and the economy in the longterm doldrums the mindset of ‘university at all costs’ holds nearly as much water. Which for me makes it all the more important that for today’s generation of school leavers that sound mentors are available to them. Making a decision that they later regret – such as an unsuitable course at an unsuitable university is something that will carry a greater financial cost amongst many other costs.

Being a mentor seldom carries a financial reward. I’d like to think that people do it out of the goodness of their hearts. I’d like to think that helping someone develop, grow, learn and overcome challenges is a reward in itself, but in a world where costs of living are reaching unsustainable levels for many of us, those rewards don’t pay the bills. Being a mentor isn’t easy. For a start it requires a time commitment. It also involves dealing with people’s problems – quite often deep problems. That takes a huge amount of patience amongst other things.

The challenge is finding those with the experience to nurture young people while at the same time not having the vested interest (parents who judge themselves & their social group on the achievements of their children, religious institutions who don’t want their flock to leave) or who is not subject to targets and reporting from the state. The closest I’ve got to mentoring in recent years is online correspondence via student message boards to young people with careers advice – especially the civil service. It’s raged from myth-busting (“Is it true that you have to have gone to oxbridge to get onto the Fast Stream?” No.) to reassuring people who have been in a complete state after some lower-than-expected  exam results (despite hard work) combined with parental outrage.

Young people get enough of a kicking from life as it is – whether the general economic situation to screaming headlines from tabloids about knife-thug-hoodies to literacy and numeracy problems with school leavers and graduates. Rather than complaining about young people and trying to live in a bubble where they don’t exist, shouldn’t those older & supposedly wiser be more proactive in engaging with them through mentoring and other programmes? After all, you – we – might just learn something and become inspired by them rather than fearful of them. Isn’t that a better future to work towards?

If you have experience of mentoring and/or working with young people, feel free to add your comments/share your experiences below.


3 thoughts on “In praise of mentors

  1. I’ve found a couple of schemes that I’ve begun to engage with to try and give something back, as I’ve been lucky enough to have some great mentors.

    The first one is with CSV to mentor young people in local authority care. Unfortunately, they have had some problems with funding so I am yet to start their training.

    However, I have just been assigned a mentee through the Undergraduate Mentoring Scheme in London, which is a bit better organised. I’m really looking forward to meeting them in the New Year and really hope I can be of some help to them.

    I think there are a few schemes around if you look on google or the CSV website. It seems to me to be the type of volunteering commitment that anybody could make – a regular hour or two at flexible times.

  2. I have had some wonderful, informal mentors – people who showed a benign interest in me, one when I was a young undergraduate and others when I was a PhD student and then a very early career academic. I’ve also had formal mentors – my PhD supervisor, mentors in post – who have been fab, too.

    I’d liken good mentoring to having a fairy god or guide mother/father. They are interested in your welfare, and look out for you – perhaps sending you a notice about a job or volunteering opportunity you might be suited to. They also wave the magic wand, and give you a different light on your problems, or lead you to the solution you couldn’t see. They are sounding boards, critical friends – and often become friends, too.

    My examples all come from my experiences in education, being a student and then being an academic myself. Yet the qualities I describe are not the exclusive preserve of people in this field, if our working lives are such that mentoring _can_ come with the territory. Interest is the key thing – a benign interest in the mentee as someone in their own right, without seeing them as competition or a threat. Trust has to be there, too – that you know that you are being taken seriously, that your problems won’t be laughed at or shared with others, that you will be given good information, and that your opinions will be respected, that a dialogue can be had. It’s a strange alchemy that, when it works, it works really well.

  3. Nice post puffles.

    Do you know of any local mentoring schemes? I’ve done and still do, bouts of volunteer work with local groups but haven’t come across anything specific.

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