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Mentoring: A New Glimpse at a Student’s Potential

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Mentoring is one of the hardest things to define, yet one of the most effective ways that students can learn. Mentoring is a process whereby the students and teacher can, side-by-side, put hands on the work.

In the practical process of theatre design, mentoring makes it possible to move the students from the classroom and the theoretical study within that setting to a safe place where they can put what they have been studying into practice, no matter how new or frightening the process might be to them.  Many times there are students who, in the classroom, are not working at their full potential for one reason or another. Sometimes they lack discipline, and some simply have trouble learning within the structure of the classroom. However, when the learning process is taken out of the classroom and put into a mentored, practical experience of creating theatre, they excel. Suddenly the students who missed class too many times spend all available time in the theatre.  The learning capacity of these types of students expands greatly.  In turn, they become more interested in the classroom experience, and you can see their improvement.  What creates this phenomenon?  Mentoring allows for the one-on-one conversation that guides a teacher towards having a deeper and stronger understanding of what motivates a student. Observing and working alongside a student can expand the teacher’s knowledge of the student’s ways of thinking, learning, and processing information.  This can then allow the mentor to target weak areas and praise strong ones in a very clear and motivating way.

On the other side of mentoring is the student who excels in the classroom but struggles with using the knowledge in a practical way. Mentoring can help a student to more easily focus the knowledge gained and move this knowledge into a life of action and participation. When I think back to my own mentors, what I remember most about the experience, is how strong their belief in me was, and how that belief was a catalyst for my work. When you  show a student an alternative path to the information, new confidence can propel the student forward in new and different ways. Once you give students a glimpse at their full potential, they can often become unstoppable. However, mentoring must come with unconditional trust. The teacher must always think, first, of what is best for the students. It is imperative that the mentor has a true belief and valid interest in the student’s success. Instructors must believe in their students so the students can believe in themselves.

Mentoring in the arts can be made more complicated by differences between the style and aesthetic of the teacher and student. Each time we, as artists, set out on a project, we strive toward excellence. However, measuring excellence in the arts is not quite as straightforward as in science. Our outcomes are not measured in figures or statistics or data. They are measured in emotion and in contribution to humanity, and how does one measure that?  Mentors in the arts must be open-minded, willing to look for success beyond their own experiences. They must be prepared to allow the student’s artistic result to not be in alignment with that of the mentor’s work. Mentors must be willing to set aside personal aesthetics and allow the students to drive their vision.  For this reason, mentoring in the arts requires a gentle touch, giving the students enough information to move their art forward, but also enough freedom to expand their creative wings. As a teacher of design, I have found one of the hardest things is ensuring that I allow a freedom of expression within my students. Mentors are not there to create a likeness of themselves, but instead to help push the limits of a student’s capabilities, allowing the students to forge their own frontiers. While mentors should be invested in the learning of their students, they should never be overly invested only in the success of their students.  Mentoring truly works when failure creates more opportunity for learning, rather than disappointment.  As teachers, there are sometimes moments when we may feel disappointed by a student, but is it the proper sentiment for ourselves to experience disappointment?  Do students ever really fail anybody but themselves?

In a classroom culture of working for a grade, it is easy to outline your expectations. The rubric of the course motivates students toward the grade they desire. Mentoring, on the other hand, has the capacity to change a student’s motivation, to help students understand that they should always be working toward greater knowledge. Students can learn that it is the combined comprehension of their complete college experience that will propel them forward and toward a life of fulfillment. While mentoring begins outside the walls of a classroom, it also goes beyond the walls of an institution. Once you allow a student to name you as a mentor, you should be willing to hold that post for life.  Mentors are quiet support pillars, there when needed, but otherwise unnoticed. The reward of mentoring is seeing a student’s newfound freedom and knowledge affect the world in a positive way.

Annmarie Duggan is Chair of the Theatre Arts Department and recipient of a 2013 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

photo credit: Chris Blakeley via photopin cc


MARCH 2014

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Mentoring: A New Glimpse at a Student’s Potential

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