mentoring“No one can teach anyone anything of significance,” wrote the famed psychologist Carl Rogers in his classic book, On Becoming a Person.  This philosophy is the foundation of effective mentoring.

I learned a lot of insignificant things in grade school.  Even today, I can name the capital of every state; I can tell you that the Amazon River is almost 4,000 miles long, and the Empire State building is 102 stories high.  I know the Pythagorean Theorem is the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  John Quincy Adams was a U.S. congressman after he was president and bats are not blind!

These facts and figures I learned through lecture, drill and practice.  Memorization was required because there was going to be a test.  Even today, the words “clear everything off your desk except for your pencil” conjures up a feeling of stark terror.  I had kind teachers, mean teachers and lazy teachers.  Most believed my brain was an empty container into which they were supposed to pour knowledge.

Then, in the fifth grade, I had Mrs. Effie Pope.  She was a seasoned renaissance nurturer of significance.  Oh, she had her moments of drill and recite.  And in an era of corporal punishment, she had mastered the business end of a paddle.  But, she would get carried away telling stories about the “why” behind the “what.”  She asked me, “What do you think?” as if my perspective was a vital part of my understanding.  She accepted my erroneous interpretations and then led me to accuracy through a conversation, not a lecture.  She was firm with an obvious expectation of excellence; she was also quick to hug.

Mrs. Pope was a treasure hunter of insight.  She knew the jewels of understanding lay hidden inside the mind of each of her students.  She respected the fact that access to those rich treasures was through a door opened from the inside.  And, that the path through that door was accessible to her only if she was invited in by its owner.  It was a trusting relationship plus her sincere curiosity and acceptance that insured the welcome mat would be put out for her.

Mentoring is not about the transmission of expertise or the conveyance of knowledge; it is about the fostering of insight—the light that goes on inside the mind of the protégé.  Insight leads to understanding, not merely retention; wisdom, not rote competence.  Mentoring is the creation and nurturance of a partnership in which mentor and protégé learn together.   

Morgan Freeman in the movie The Magic of Belle Isle plays Monte Wildhorn, a wheelchair bound famous Western novelist whose loss of his wife has led to alcoholism.  It robbed him of his love for writing and left him angry and depressed.  He rents a lakeside cabin for the summer on beautiful Belle Isle and becomes friends with the family next door—a single mom and her three young daughters.  The middle daughter, Finnegan, wants to be a writer but is struggling to figure out the concept of imagination. 

Monte agrees to teach Finnegan about imagination for the $32 she has saved.  He begins their imagination lessons by treating Finnegan as a very bright equal, not as a naive 10 year old child.  Their exchanges are laced with honesty and authenticity.  She learns to be candid; he learns to be kind. 

Monte first attempts to demonstrate imagination by telling her a big yarn about faking his inability to walk in an attempt to defraud the insurance company.  He learns the route to her “getting” the concept was not to show her, but to chaperon her on her own learning journey.  “What do you see?” he asks her in one lesson.  She only reports reality.  “What do you not see?” he queries and Finnegan begins to slowly grasp the concept.

Mentoring is about being an escort, not an expert. It is about being a facilitator of discovery, not a dispenser of information.  The role requires yielding to the magical flow from sightlessness to insight-full.  Like the current of a river, effective navigation requires working with, not tolling over; joining, not directing.  Like Monte and Mrs. Pope, success lies not only in a deep respect for the learning; it resides in a deep regard for the learner.  Mentoring starts with a recognition that the world of significance is not what you see, it is what you don’t see.   

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