Coach, Mentor, or Both?

karenA couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts inspired by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Stone and Heen, professors at Harvard Law School and partners in an international consulting firm, have identified three distinct elements in fully developed feedback. A post on April 15 considered how the first element, appreciation, might look in a community college classroom. The second element is actually a tandem: coaching and mentoring.

Stone and Heen don’t draw a sharp line between coaching and mentoring, but my relationships with my students suggest that there is a difference, albeit a blurry one. My discipline, anatomy & physiology, is challenging, so I typically assume a coaching role. MDHSPractice-Aug11-007-300x256Coaches are concerned with performance. To enhance performance, we set goals, employ training techniques and measure progress. In A&P, this looks like online assignments, in-class activities, and frequent assessments. I offer mnemonics, worksheets, class displays, and individual tutoring. Above all, I insist that each student can and should improve her performance. No apologies for asking students to work hard, since that is the only way to get better.

The mentoring role is different. Our college is considering a more deliberate approach to helping our students acquire “soft skills,” and mentoring can be the vehicle for teaching these. (By the way, will someone please come up with an alternative term? I’m already weary of hearing and using the “SS” phrase, and it reliably triggers a nearly anaphylactic reaction in some colleagues.) Mentoring isn’t about teaching body parts and functions. Mentoring is helping students learn how to learn. Mentoring is encouraging students to fall in love with a subject. Mentoring is helping students assume responsibility for their own learning and ultimately their own lives.

MentoringHow do we mentor effectively? There are shelves full of books on that topic, but it seems best to start with the materials at hand. First, I share my own vulnerability. I’m a lousy speller, so I work on my spelling. I don’t have all the answers, so most evenings find me researching a topic posed in class. I wasn’t born knowing anything about A&P, so I openly confess that I spent a lot of long hours at my own kitchen table with one finger in my textbook and one on my notes.

Second, I try to model the behaviors that I most want to see. I show up. I don’t make excuses. I respect my students and my colleagues. I try hard to tell the truth consistently and kindly. I share the best advice that I’ve been given. Sometimes this means steering a student toward a different goal than the one first chosen. Often it means encouraging a student to dream bigger than she’d previously dared.

Next week, I’ll complete this little series with the third element of feedback.


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