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Mentors Beyond Education

As a student – and quite possibly during your future professional training – you will encounter 3 types of people: instructors, coaches, and mentors. Each will contribute to your learning process in different ways and it’s important for you, the learner, to know the difference.


Their job is not to give students knowledge but rather to help them create their own knowledge. Some students think that instruction is about transferring or transmitting knowledge, but it is not. It is actually about helping students construct knowledge for themselves. You’ve probably worked with various instructors over the years. Instructors are experts in various subject matters who are trained to produce environments conducive to learning. Instructors’ primary role is to teach.


When students are tasked with completing and end of term exam, their needs are different from at the start of the term. Students know what they have to do to complete the exam (they possess the theoretical understanding of accounting) but they might not be able to apply accounting principles, or they might lack confidence, or they might simply not have enough practice and competency to succeed on the exam. They need a coach—a person who can focus specifically on the final exam and provide the support, encouragement and motivation, and who can “push” them to do better than they think they can. Coaches may teach somethings to you and will definitely share some experience and wisdom, but their focus is to encourage you to succeed.


Mentoring, on the other hand, is a balance of teaching and encouraging. Mentors are subject-matter experts who have a wide and deep experience in their subjects. They teach the subject of their expertise, and are probably instructional experts in their field of study. They will be able to provide answers and steer you in the right direction for you to formulate questions you couldn’t have asked previously. However, mentors will generally assume that you have an adequate understanding of the subject matter. At Empire State College (ESC), for example, they will challenge you to write a Senior Project. Mentors work very closely with those who learn with them. Most mentoring is done one-on-one, rather than with groups—it is personalized and focused, providing mentees with the environment they need to grow and develop into more equipped members of a specific field of study.

Although there are many definitions of mentoring, there are two in particular that are particularly accurate and useful. The first is given by Ray Pawson (2004), who sees mentoring as “a never-ending list” that includes:

“Helping, coaching, tutoring, counselling, sponsoring, role modelling, befriending, bonding, trusting, mutual learning, direction setting, progress chasing, sharing experience, providing respite, sharing a laugh, widening horizons, building resilience, showing ropes, informal apprenticeships, providing openings, kindness of strangers, sitting by Nellie, treats for bad boys and girls, the Caligula phenomenon, power play, tours of middle class life, etc. etc.”

Pawson’s list is a creative list of the things that go into mentoring. Despite the fact that it is creative, it is still able to demonstrate how wide and different the elements that go into mentoring are.

The second more formal, but equally accurate and valuable, description of mentoring is provided by Anne Powell (1997). She understands that mentoring is a relational engagement between individuals, each possessing different levels of experience and knowledge, in order to:

“…improve that person’s chances for achieving his or her goals by linking them to resources and support not otherwise available. The role of the mentor is to pass on knowledge, experience and judgment, and/or to provide guidance and support… [to provide] psychosocial support for changes in behavior, attitudes and ambitions….with the goals of reassuring innate worth, instilling values, guiding curiosity, and encouraging a positive youthful life. Distinguished from child rearing and friendship, the mentoring relationship is intended to be temporary, with the objective of helping the protégé reach independence and autonomy.”

In various contexts, may it be in school or organizational, mentoring lasts for a fixed period of time. At ESC, mentoring lasts for about a year. There is a reason why these mentoring relationships come to an end: they are specifically designed to be temporary. They are designed to come an end when the mentee has achieved the degree of independency, confidence, and autonomy that he or she requires.

There are two things you need to know going into a mentor-mentee relationship.

First, the mentoring program is supervised by ESC, which is the newest college in the State University of New York system. In 1971, when ESC was created, the college dedicated itself to provide innovative and student-centered learning with mentoring is at its core. ESC has a long and very successful mentoring history and its expertise in this field is renowned within American higher education. The ESC Center of Mentoring and Learning and Academic Innovation actively searches for ways to continue improving the mentoring program. It is important that all mentees get the mentoring they need from experienced and professional educators.

Second, you shouldn’t be alarmed if your mentor works from a distance. It can be easy to confuse mentoring and instruction. Mentors don’t teach directly; they help you discover for yourself. They are readily available to work with their mentees, answer their questions, and provide the guidance and assurance that is needed. A new trend called, e-mentoring is emerging where mentoring is carried out from a distance. This has neither affected the quality nor the effectiveness of mentoring. As a matter of fact, e-mentoring has made it easier for mentees to obtain the best mentors for the best mentoring experience wherever they are in the world. Mentors and mentees are required to establish and maintain a close working relationship, but in today’s day and age, all of that is one video-chat away.

Getting a mentor is a decision you won’t regret. Being mentored is an exciting process of discovering different things and obtaining a different understanding of the work required. It’s a good source of support and confidence that enables us to do more than we ever thought possible. Now that you understand a little bit of what mentoring is, hopefully you’ll be able to optimize any mentoring relationships you enter in the future.

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