Modern Mentoring – and Thoughts on What That Is

wcet closer conversation logo. Mentoring women in digital learning March 26 2021 wcet logo.

Later today WCET will be hosting the first of its new member only events called Closer Conversations. These events are meant to foster active engagement and discussion between several higher education digital learning experts and attendees. in honor of International Women’s Month, today’s Closer Conversation is focused on mentoring women in digital learning. The session will be hosted by several incredible experts to discuss how to support women working in digital and technological fields. One of those discussion leaders is someone who I not only view as a wonderful friend, but definitely as a role model and mentor. I’m so thrilled she accepted our invitation to write today’s post and is involved in today’s conversation!

I hope you’ll join us this afternoon! Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Mentoring is…

The traditional practice of mentoring is one-directional, as the Google definition says, it is to “advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).” Mentoring as solely a match between a senior employee and a junior employee who aspires to the same position will do nothing more than continue to promote the status quo. This mental model of mentoring harkens to the days when careerists worked 30 years for the same company, climbing one rung of the ladder at a time, until they retired from the same company. This mindset no longer matches with the reality of a volatile job market, where employers are looking to match skills to problems rather than simply filling vacancies. This type of top-down mentality is not enough to meet the needs of women in educational technology today, or really the needs of anyone in any career path in 2021 and beyond.

Modern Mentoring is…

Modern mentorship is built on mutual benefit which is neither directional nor disciplinary. It is not age dependent or title dependent. It does not require a formal agreement, though it may have one in place. At its heart, mentorship is leadership personified. It is taking the time to share wisdom, coach, guide, reflect with, advocate for, and proactively take steps to support the talent surrounding you and that exists within you.

Women’s History Month gives me an opportunity to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned as a mentor, a mentee, a professional coach, and a human, and today, to share that with you.

Modern Mentoring is…Trust

Caption for Slime photo: Photo by Kyle Brinker on Unsplash

Mentoring relationships are built on mutual trust and on the faith we each put into the relationship. I became a formal mentor in 2001, when, fresh out of my undergrad program in a new city, I sought an opportunity to connect with and give back to my community. I volunteered with Thrive and was paired up with a shy 7th grader to meet once a week, during school, to be her CAP mentor. In over a 15 years as a CAP mentor, I had a half dozen CAP pals. While each had different reasons for joining the program, the first step with each new mentee was to build trust. For kids and adults alike this means showing up, maintaining confidences, and following through on what you said you would do. With my CAP pals, that meant if I promised we’d make slime at our next meeting, I showed up with the supplies to make slime. As I have entered into adult mentoring relationships – both formal and informal – that hasn’t changed. Building trust means maintaining confidences – my personal cone of silence. Unless I suspect harm, what is said between a mentee OR a mentor and myself stays between us. And it means following through with what we each committed to do.

Modern Mentoring is…Listening for Understanding

Too often when we are having a conversation – inside a mentoring relationship or otherwise – we are listening with the intent to respond. Our brains are formulating the nugget of wisdom to pass on before the person we’re engaging with is even done talking. It takes a conscious act to help our brains stop and focus entirely on listening, on understanding the words with all of the meaning and undertones contained within. When you listen for understanding, you might find the problem the person thinks they have is not the problem at all but rather a symptom which can help you guide them forward.

Modern Mentoring is…Sharing & Receiving Wisdom

two people sit in front of a laptop screen
Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

Oscar Wilde is credited (on Good Reads so, mildly questionable) with saying “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Plainly stated, wisdom does not come from age alone, but rather from lived experiences. There are ten-year-olds with great wisdom and 90-year-olds with none. In any mentoring relationship, sharing wisdom – what you have learned through your lived experiences and your reflection on them – is essential to helping your mentee grow. However, sharing wisdom with an unwilling participant is a fool’s errand. The recipient must be open to receiving wisdom before it can truly help them learn and move forward.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned in my coaching practice is to know the difference between sharing wisdom and giving direction. In coaching the goal is to guide the client to the answer buried within themselves, sometimes through the example of your own lived experience, rather than giving the client direction on what choice to make. This is where coaching and mentoring differ – mentors can be more direct in making suggestions, offering solutions, if they so choose. Both can be beneficial, however different based on the goals of the relationship.

Modern Mentoring is…Investing in Others

Mentoring is investing your time, your mind space, and your caring in others. To build a strong relationship those investments must be made over time, not in one-time wisdom drops. However, what I’ve found is that by investing in others, you recognize the return on that investment in yourself. My life has been so positively impacted by those who’ve come before me and reached a hand back and those I turn back or to the side to reach for in this game of life. Mentoring is advocacy – it is bringing to the forefront a voice that doesn’t match the status quo or that is being talked over by an ostentatious individual. It’s saying, “I’m speaking” or “Please allow this person to finish their contribution.”

In my career, and in my life, I have serendipitously fallen into mentoring relationships in the hallways of WCET conference and I have banged on doors to seek out the wisdom closed behind them. I have answered the call, the knock on my {virtual} door, and I have shared my lived experience with others so they may learn from my mistakes, from my successes and from my epic fails. That shy 7th grader is now a confident young woman who holds two degrees and has dedicated her life to serving others through nursing. I couldn’t be prouder, seeing the woman she’s become and thinking that maybe my investment contributed to who she is today.

Disruptive Thinkers, WCET’ers, Hae Okimoto, Catherine Kelley, Diane Goldsmith, Karen Solomon, and Ellen Wagner are just a few who have shared their wisdom with me over the years.

So, in celebration of Women’s History Month, I invite to take your own moment of reflection about those you have mentored and those who have mentored you. Cherish the investments you have made and received. And bring your learning and your questions to the WCET Closer Conversation today as we talk about Mentoring Women in Digital Learning.

cali morrison

Cali Morrison
Interim Dean, Center for Professional & Continuing Education, American Public University System
Chief Instigator & Courageous Coach – Creative Synapse, LLC

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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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