Read an Excerpt
The Mentor's Field Guide
Answers You Need to Help Kids Succeed
By Gail Manza, Susan K. Patrick, Mary Byers
Search Institute PressCopyright © 2012 Search Institute
All rights reserved.
QUESTIONS ABOUT 21ST-CENTURY MENTORING
Mentoring ... I think about it as a great opportunity to be an integral part of a young person's success.
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES
The questions in this chapter focus on the basics. We start with a definition of mentoring, then address the first questions that typically occur to adults as they begin to think about what it means to be a mentor, as well as what it takes to establish a relationship with a young person they are — in most instances — meeting for the first time. As you consider the answers in this chapter and throughout the book, you will see that we have highlighted some differences in the ways our advice may be applied by those who are mentoring through organized programs and those who are mentoring informally. If you are unclear about which category best fits your mentoring experience, begin with Question 2 (Formal and informal mentoring: what's the difference?), and then return to Question 1 and take Questions 3-14 in order. Otherwise, start with Question 1 and read on.
QUESTION 1. Mentoring — I generally get it but am in search of a good, jargon-free definition. What have you got?
Mentoring is an ancient form of social interaction that has modern applications, one of which is youth mentoring. Definitions of modern youth mentoring abound, but the one we have come to favor was introduced by former MENTOR CEO, Larry Wright: "Mentoring is a means to an end, with the end being any objective that a mentor and mentee agree is important to a child's development."
Commonly agreed-upon ends include broadly cast objectives like exposure to new experiences, stronger relational skills, improvements in overall or selected aspects of academic achievement (e.g., reading, math, music, language skills), exploration of work or career options, and opening doors to new worlds and new opportunities. Ends can, and often do, embrace much more limited aspirations: getting to school on a regular basis, learning to deal with bullies, navigating new cultural or social environments, getting (and keeping) a summer job, or identifying and completing the many steps involved in applying to a technical school or college. An even more targeted end of interest to many young people living in disadvantaged circumstances is simply getting to know people and places beyond the narrow boundaries of their worlds. Mentees from South Central Los Angeles articipating in the Los Angeles Team Mentoring program wanted, quite literally, to see the Pacific Ocean, just eight miles away. Still other children may, as Cyndi Lauper sings, "just want to have fun," something that can be in surprisingly short supply in many young lives.
Broadly defining mentoring as a means to a young person's ends has several advantages. It concisely captures the essence of good mentoring: helping a young person get to where he or she wants to go. It is easily applied by mentors who are called upon to respond to questions from friends, colleagues, or family members. "You're mentoring?" they ask. "What's that?" The answer: "Mentoring is a way for me to team with a young person to_______" (with the blank being yours — along with your mentee — to fill in). We emphasize that this definition is widely applicable, regardless of the age of a mentee. Even the youngest participants in targeted mentoring programs, such as a reading mentoring program like Everybody Wins, will be able to give you some idea of what they are after: learning to improve their reading, being able to read the kinds of books they like, or just having someone nice to sit with during lunch. All are good places to start.
In fact, we have found that the most essential feature of whatever ends are identified is that they are explored and mutually agreed upon by the mentor and mentee — and then revisited and refined as the mentoring relationship evolves. There are few things more disappointing (and, potentially, more damaging) than finding out that your mentee wanted a mentor to help him learn how to talk comfortably with new people (including college admissions officers or potential employers), while you spent your time together focusing on trying to improve his math, even though, of course, you could have done both.
Although we think you'll find "mentoring as a means to a young person's ends" to be an accurate and consistent definition of mentoring, we want you to be aware of more formal alternatives. We provide several very good ones. Also note that most dictionaries define mentoring by relying on its root word: mentor. Admirers of Greek mythology will recall that when Odysseus set sail in Homer's The Odyssey, he left the care of his son Telemachus in the worthy hands of his wife, Penelope. Odysseus also asked his trusted friend, Mentor, to provide watchful support, as well as the challenge and counsel his young son would inevitably need in his absence. This makes Mentor the first mentor; it further established the idea that a mentor is both a friendly adviser and thoughtful teacher who knows when to challenge a mentee, when to help, and when to let go (McEwan, 2000).
In keeping with this lineage, The Oxford English Dictionary (2009) defines a mentor to be "a trusted guide and advisor." Webster's American Dictionary (2010) defines a mentor "as a trusted friend and guide" and mentoring as "the act of being a trusted friend and guide." Finally, MENTOR, the leading champion for youth mentoring in the United States, defines a mentor as "a wise and trusted friend and guide."
While all of these definitions are clearly correct and consistent with mentoring's genesis, the average mentor is not entirely or even remotely comfortable describing her - or himself as a "wise and trusted friend and guide to a young person." So we suggest building on the versatile idea that mentoring is a means to help reach a young person's ends. It will surely make talking about mentoring, as well as your role as a mentor, more comfortable and, very probably, more engaging. It also will make you less of a target for any of your family, friends, and colleagues who may see you as slightly less than manifestly "wise." More importantly, it will remind you that the central focus of mentoring remains the dreams and aspirations of young people. Your assignment is to make the mentoring experience meaningful to them, to become — as First Lady Michelle Obama and the Corporation for National and Community Service suggest — an integral part of their success (nationalservice.gov).
QUESTION 2. Formal mentoring and informal mentoring: what's the difference?
In our view, the terms formal mentoring and informal mentoring leave a lot to be desired as descriptives. Formal mentoring invariably makes us think of dinner-jacketed mentors at long dining tables, while informal mentoring evokes the image of a kind of drive-by mentoring where an adult says, "You go, girl!" to a nice kid she runs into every once in a while in the neighborhood McDonald's. Although we can't account for these flights of definitional fancy (or for a certain fixation on food), we can say that formal mentoring simply means you are mentoring as part of a structured program operating under the auspices of an institution, such as a nonprofit organization, a school, a place of worship, or a business enterprise. Formal mentoring programs typically have either paid or volunteer staff who will help you through the process of becoming a mentor and then a strong mentor by providing solid training, making a well-considered match with a young person, and ensuring you have ongoing support during the experience. You are in a formal mentoring program if you are mentoring through organizations like Best Buddies International, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Experience Corps, Goodwill Guides, Everybody Wins, Mentoring the 100 Way, or any one of thousands of mentoring programs that operate throughout the United States and elsewhere. You also may be formally mentoring if you are involved in a youth development program (e.g., an after-school or recreation center program) that explicitly adds mentoring to the service mix and prepares adults to mentor. Good examples are the programming of the U.S. Dream Academy and more than 60 after-school programs that the Afterschool Alliance estimates have a mentoring dimension.
In contrast, informal mentoring, which researchers often call natural mentoring, is mentoring that happens outside the bounds of formal, structured programs. In many families, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and close family friends often mentor a young person a generation or two younger. A common example: parents find adults in the family circle who are involved in a sport or career that interests their child and encourage a sustained connection that allows the exploration of new territory. A real-life example: the course of Gail's husband's life was shaped by the imagination and vigor of an informal mentor, his beloved uncle Mitre. Teachers also frequently mentor informally, not as part of their job description or contract or formal school-based program, but because it is a part of their personal mission or they are moved by particular children's talents or needs. This is true for a host of caring adults, including clergy, coaches, supervisors of student interns or part-time workers, or family friends who have been drafted into service by parents and caregivers, by their own interest in the well -being of a child who simply crosses their path or by young people themselves.
In our experience, strong mentoring can occur in either a formal or informal context. Research on this subject seems to bear this out (DuBois & Silverthorn, 2005; Lerner, Zimmerman, Bingenheimer & Behrendt, 2005). And we may eventually find that following the example of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which blends techniques drawn from formal and informal mentoring, delivers meaningful outcomes for young people by capitalizing on the strengths of both approaches. Meanwhile, it is important to note that there is far more informal mentoring occurring in the United States than the more formalized, institution-based alternative (DuBois & Silverthorn, 2005; McLearn, Colasanto & Schoen, 1998; MENTOR, 2002, 2005).
This point is equally important: although we believe that both types of mentoring can be effective in terms of the one index that matters most (the needs of the mentee), this rarely happens serendipitously. But much can be done to enhance the quality of either formal or informal mentoring. It is an entirely doable assignment and is becoming more so with each new development that brings mentors — formal and otherwise — in contact with the information and expertise they need to make the most of their mentoring relationships. For more on this point, read on.
QUESTION 3. Who mentors?
A great many adults in the United States mentor and many young people do, too. Here's an aerial view. In 2009, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that nearly 11 million American volunteers (or 17 percent of the 63.4 million Americans who volunteered) engage in some youth mentoring activities each year (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2010). Four years earlier, MENTOR found that nearly 3 million American adults were in formal one-to-one mentoring relationships (MENTOR, 2005), while the corporation reported that the number of volunteers who spend time mentoring in a variety of ways stood at 11.5 million (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2006a). Highlights from these two surveys, which comprehensively assess the rate of mentoring in the United States, as well as the characteristics of those who mentor, appear on pages 9 and 10. Take a look and see how they compare with your "personal profile."
Also note that the numbers underscore that interest in and dedication to mentoring have grown substantially during the past couple of decades, spurred by the exceptional leadership of MENTOR co-founders Geoffrey Boisi and Raymond Chambers and all the leaders they, in turn, engaged in creating what has become a broad-based national mentoring movement. Other notable champions are the current and past presidents and their first ladies, Barack and Michelle Obama (2009-present) and George W. and Laura Bush (2001-2008), along with Colin and Alma Powell, founders of America's Promise: The Alliance for Youth, many sitting and past governors, corporate and faith-based leaders, and human services leaders operating at the federal, state, and local levels in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. If you are mentoring or interested in becoming a mentor, you, too, are part of a large cadre of Americans who have come to believe that mentoring can play a meaningful role in a young person's development and success.
QUESTION 4. How does someone become a mentor?
You can become a mentor in one of two ways: you can volunteer or you can be drafted. Let's start with volunteering. Once you have made a decision to explore mentoring, you will find many ways to identify an opportunity that may be right for you. A good place to start is MENTOR's Volunteer Referral Service. If you visit www.mentoring.org/get_involved, you can search for mentoring opportunities within a radius of your ZIP code and find profiles. Other useful sites, including those hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Service (serve.gov/mentor.asp) and United Way's Live United Campaign (liveunited.org).
If you prefer talking with someone in your community who is knowledgeable about current mentoring opportunities in your town or workplace, there are three excellent places to start. First, find out if there is a Mentoring Partnership in your state and, if so, call, e-mail, or visit for an overview of what's available in your community (see chapter 8 for a state-by-state list and contact information for Mentoring Partnerships). Also, virtually every community in the United States has a United Way or Volunteer Center (or Hands On Action Center) that tracks volunteer opportunities, including mentoring opportunities (again, see chapter 8). As a third option, you can touch base with your place of worship or your workplace's human resources or volunteer services department. A substantial amount of mentoring happens through religious organizations, and many workplace groups support mentoring programs in their communities and even sponsor mentoring programs within their walls. The latter opportunities are likely to grow as many more U.S. companies respond to the Corporate Mentoring Challenge issued in early 2011 by First Lady Michelle Obama and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
In short, if you want to mentor, there are lots of organizations and people who will help you find the right opportunity. Your job is to find it and then contact the sponsoring agency. Once you do, you are likely to be asked to move through a screening and application process (described in Question 11). As we say there, embrace the process. It is essential for ensuring that young people are matched with the right mentors, and it should be invaluable to you, too.
What if mentoring finds you? There are three ways you are likely to be recruited to be a mentor. First, a young person may ask you to be her or his mentor. This sometimes happens within families or a circle of close family friends and is what often prompts the kind of informal mentoring relationships described in Question 2. If you are drafted by a young person, consider it an honor and review our advice on how to respond in the discussion of Question 17. Second, an adult in your personal or professional network may ask you to mentor one of his children, in ways large (a sustained relationship) or small (help the child explore activities or professional realms where you have expertise). Finally, you may be moved to respond by one of a number of national campaigns dedicated to generating more mentors for America's children.
First and foremost is the National Mentoring Month campaign, spearheaded by the Harvard School of Public Health in partnership with MENTOR and the Corporation for National and Community Service. This broad-based campaign has taken place each January since 2002. In 2012, the theme was "Invest in the Future, Mentor a Child," and the campaign offered a wide range of opportunities for Americans in every community throughout the country to do three things: learn more about mentoring, become a mentor, and — through an especially inspired element of the campaign — thank someone for being a mentor (for more information on National Mentoring Month and Thank Your Mentor Day, visit national mentoringmonth.org). Jay Winsten, National Mentoring Month's principal architect and dedicated advocate, calls the campaign "a way to do what it takes to persuade more Americans to mentor: Ask them to be a mentor."
Excerpted from The Mentor's Field Guide by Gail Manza, Susan K. Patrick, Mary Byers. Copyright © 2012 Search Institute. Excerpted by permission of Search Institute Press.
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