A mentor cannot be a supervisor. It’s just that simple.
One of the most important features of mentoring is that it is non-evaluative. The mentoring relationship only works when the mentee feels able to be completely frank with the mentor, and can share difficulties, doubts and dilemmas, as well as triumphs and successes. Such frankness is not possible with someone who is evaluating your performance and deciding on your continued employment. Therefore, while a good supervisor will offer advice and guidance, he or she cannot be a “mentor” in the full sense.
My interest in mentoring grew out of my earliest experiences as a public school principal. My first principalship was in a remote rural village. In my last meeting with my superintendent before taking up my appointment, he said: “Claude, my best principals are the ones I hear least from.” His expectations could not have been clearer: “Keep a lid on that place, and don’t let it bother me!” I learnt very quickly that to frankly share problems with supervisors, and seek their advice (as a novice principal I certainly needed much help!) was to raise red flags about my competence. So I learned to hide. I, and my school, would have benefitted hugely had I had a mentor with whom I could openly discuss difficulties I encountered. While my second public school principalship was in a far more supportive and collaborative district, it took me a long time to at least partially unlearn the lessons of the first one, and deal more openly with my supervisors.
The clear benefit to a mentoring relationship with someone working in your school or district is that person has more intimate knowledge of the environment and its challenges. He or she may be in a better position to help. However, the flip side is that the mentoring dimension to a supervisory relationship is often limited by an individual’s natural reserve in discussing shortcomings with someone who exercises great influence on their career. Even peer mentoring relationships are often best bound by caution. For example, what happens when your mentor to whom you have revealed your shortfalls and dilemmas becomes your supervisor? That person may find herself having to balance the competing demands of your confidentiality and her duty to make the best staffing decisions. While there are meaningful benefits to internal mentoring relationships, the mentor who is external and completely without conflict is in a superior position to provide long term benefit.
When I enter into a mentoring relationship, I always do so with the explicit understanding that I will not report the content or even the topics of the mentoring discussions with anyone other than the mentee, and most particularly not with the mentee’s supervisors.
In my mentoring practice, the agenda is driven by the mentee’s concerns. Typical conversations begin with my asking what has been causing the mentee to lose sleep since our last conversation. We go on to explore the issue, identifying possible courses of action, and the risks and benefits of each. It is in the course of the discussion, through the stimulation it affords, that ideas emerge. More often than not, they come from the mentee, not the mentor. There are typically no perfect solutions – if there were, the topic would likely not be up for discussion. In the end, it must be the administrator who decides on which course to take as it will be the leader who lives with the consequences. This full and frank discussion of the issues and implications of the possible courses of action leads to more confident, more fully explored, and ultimately better decisions.
Evaluation is a quite different process. Unlike mentoring, its purpose is to make judgements about the quality of performance. These judgements inform employment outcomes. Certainly a good evaluation process will identify strengths and problems, and generate ideas for improvement, and should usually be a positive experience. Indeed, one of the great benefits of a good evaluation process is that strengths are identified and celebrated. The atmosphere should be respectful and may even have a somewhat collegial feel, but, unlike a mentoring relationship, there is a power imbalance. And no matter how superficially pleasant the atmosphere, the person being evaluated is vulnerable.
It is vital that there is no confusion about the difference between mentoring and evaluation. It is fundamentally dishonest for a supervisor, or anyone who is evaluating someone, or who is in a position to make or influence any decisions about someone’s employment, to present himself as a “mentor”. There must never be the sense that the mentoring discussions can influence the evaluation.
That first principalship, in a small, remote, village school, where the less I was heard from, the better I would be considered to be, was the loneliest period of my professional life. If only I had had a mentor!