As I went to pick up my daughter from school one day when she was in Grade Two, I found her sitting beside a classmate, patiently listening to her read, correcting words quietly without interrupting the flow. It had taken my daughter longer to read than most of her classmates. She knew that the little girl beside her just needed someone to listen, because she had been there.
As we become lifelong learners and career paths turn out to be less linear, more people are blending their skills to carve out new directions. In this new reality, it is important to know where to find the kind of help we need when we need it. Traditionally, school has offered us a place to learn new skills, but courses are designed to meet the needs of many. Mentoring, by contrast, is tailored to individuals.
Mentorships are set up between two people who meet regularly on a volunteer basis. A mentee is ready to accomplish whatever they are setting out to do. What they need is someone who has been where they want to go, and can reassure them when inevitable obstacles pop up. As well as knowledge, wisdom and experience, mentors provide mentees with a sounding board, someone they can bounce ideas off.
Kelsey White, coordinator of the mentorship program at Youth Employment Services (YES) in Montreal, says that mentees go through a screening process to make sure they are ready, that they really want it.
YES’s most successful program is their entrepreneur mentorship. White says that the essential ingredients in a good match are for both people to connect, to respect each other, and to commit time to developing the relationship. When we start out on a learning curve, it takes time to know what questions to ask.
“Mentorship is a long-term endeavour,” she says. “In our program, you might meet someone who has started up a different kind of company. They may not know your day-to-day, but they are familiar with the roadblocks that everyone encounters when they start a business. They know how it feels to think you’re ready to launch, only to find there is one more thing you need to attend to.”
In matching mentors and mentees, White is careful to ensure that commitment is part of the plan. “Of course, life happens and sometimes plans don’t work out, but we have mentors and mentees sign a voluntary contract for a period of time between 6 months and 2 years. We’ve found that meeting once a month is a base minimum for getting the relationship off the ground. We also support our mentors. We hold mentor gatherings every month so that mentors can compare notes and share solutions.”
White says that mentors have told her they find it rewarding to give back, that it validates what they know. They like being able to help and guide those who were once in their position. “But people being busy and not being able to keep up their commitment is always an issue. From the outset, the program places a lot of importance on making the time – to reflect and learn from others – because that is really what mentoring is all about.”
When E-180 decided to put together an online magazine, the obvious solution was to share knowledge by pairing experienced writers with emerging writers who wanted to learn the business. I applied. I was an experienced writer, but my goal was to learn how to structure an argument. My editor, who is also being mentored by a professional editor, says that the thing she finds so exciting about E-180’s knowledge sharing premise is that it allows us to learn what we need – when we need it – so that ultimately we can create a path that is uniquely our own.
Catherine Savard, an established freelance writer in Montreal, volunteered to be my mentor. She joined the program because a mentor was something she wished she’d had when she started as a freelancer. After our first meeting, I emailed Catherine drafts and she would point out why transitions weren’t working or where more was needed to link one idea to another. We were both busy with our day jobs. We spoke on the phone late at night when schedules allowed.
I learned it wasn’t so much a matter of structuring my writing – it was more a question of structuring my thoughts. Catherine and I met on Skype for this last article. Since the transitions were so much better than they had been in previous articles, we just talked. About the subtle differences between mentoring and teaching, how peer learning has been so successful in elementary schools, how mentoring offers learning to both mentors and mentees.
When asked if she would do it differently next time, Catherine says she would build in more face time. “I think if we had structured it to meet in person more often, it would have worked better. Looking back, I realize that, even as a writer, talking is better – and quicker!”
My daughter is in university now, and due to a busy schedule last term, she fell behind in Physics. I was thinking about a tutor, thinking it might already be too late, when she told me she had arranged to meet a friend to bring her up to speed. They spent six hours together. She brought questions; he mapped out a review. Her final mark was an A.
I can’t help but think my daughter had learned from her earlier experience: sometimes our best resources – the people who’ve learned exactly what we need – are right around us.