Originally published in educational Horizons Spring 1995. 108 - 109

Mentoring: Are We Serious?
©1999  Edward G. Rozycki

edited 3/31/12

The Schoolyard Swing

No doubt most of us have seen the cartoon showing the development of a school swing from how the kids conceived it to the result constructed by the school board. The children want just an old tire swung from a tree limb by a rope; a place to hang out in the shade, to talk and to occasionally climb or swing on. Worried parents add another rope, for safety, and replace the tire -- it dirties the clothes -- with a wooden seat. The teachers replace the wooden seat with a flexible rubber strap which can't be climbed on and which won't crack heads.

For the sake of a proper ecological attitude the swing is removed from the tree and given a frame of its own to support it out away from any plant growth. The principal fences the swing in, to reduce accidents. School lawyers suggest supervision and/or a lockable gate to reduce liability, effectively reducing access to school hours. Engineering redesigns it to reduce height and freedom of swing; no roughhousing here! After it's installed, the kids ignore it.

Is Student Teaching Mentoring?

Mentoring -- one might think -- is just the most wonderful thing to come along in education for ... centuries, almost. Everybody seems to be talking about it; why, you can tell how successful it's going to be because just about every other educational conference you see advertised has loads and loads of presentations on mentoring. Who knows? Perhaps it will even achieve the stunning success enjoyed by such innovations as open classrooms, or programmed learning!

Student teaching, we know, has long attempted to provide mentors for the fledgling educator by pairing him or her up with an experienced teacher. But the reality is often that each school principal picks the sponsoring teacher for reasons other than any concern to help the student teacher. The colleges, generally competing with each other for scarce placements, have little control over how their students are placed or what is done with them should they be lucky enough to secure a placement.

Mentors: neither buddies nor bosses

Actually, mentoring has some advantages over a buddy system. "Buddies" are chosen peers who may or not have special skills to pass on to the newcomer. Bosses are people, generally not of one's own choosing, placed in authority over one. Mentors occupy a different status: they are not peers, generally, but rather enjoy authority over the newcomer by virtue of the knowledge they possess. And, not less important, mentor and protegé are mutually selected. One guides; the other, chooses to be guided. Can we realistically expect this special relationship to be preserved given the exigencies many schools suffer from?

The mentor-protegé relationship has a potential for risk. It takes less than an evil mind to imagine how either party might succumb to exploiting the other. In addition, the perception might arise that deserving persons are being deprived of needed sponsorship merely because of a lack of emotional connection to possible mentors.

Do student teacher needs have any priority?

The wrong answers to any of the following questions are likely indicators that mentoring exists more as rhetoric than reality. Have the "mentor" and "protegé" really chosen each other? Can the choice be changed if incompatibility is discovered? Is the mentor still held responsible for meeting curricular schedules despite having a protegé to deal with? Is the mentor required to provide final evaluation of the protegé? Can the mentor terminate the relationship without prejudice if he or she feels the protegé is not working out? Can the protegé terminate the relationship without prejudice of he or she feels it is not working out? Can college programs accommodate such variation? Are school districts willing to absorb what will definitely be costs, albethey short-term costs, to enable the long-term gains promised by mentoring?

Perhaps if serious thought is given to the costs and benefits involved in mentoring, we can hope that it will do somewhat better than open classrooms and programmed learning. Or maybe mentoring, like the schoolyard swing, will undergo such a radical transformation between original conception to actual implementation that we, too, will come to ignore it.