THE GIFT OF MENTORING

Brian Barratt

Based on a talk given to a special interest group of IARTV, Melbourne, in March 2001. It was published in the journal TalentEd  volume 19, nos 3 & 4, 2001. This is a slightly revised version.

There are a number of ‘motivating factors’ that lead to an adult becoming a mentor to a gifted student. Some were analysed and discussed in an earlier article which compared mentoring with tutoring 1. There are also several approaches to and definitions of what a mentor actually does and how the process differs from teaching and tutoring. To establish a working basis for some anecdotes and case studies, I shall revisit a few of the points raised in the earlier article. Bearing in mind that what follows is a personal point of view, please join me now in a somewhat pedantic...

Dry theoretical introduction

A mentor must be useful. There is no point in commencing a relationship on the basis of a Pygmalion complex, aiming somehow to mould or build the perfect student. The aim is not to create a genius, whether or not the potential exists, but to respond to the student’s own needs in a useful way. The keyword is flexibility.

Communication is another important factor and a constant reminder that mentoring is a two‑way process. It involves the creative handling of ideas with the student — any ideas which crop up, regardless of their immediate relevance — whatever the sources of those ideas. With this as a starting point, the association of ideas is taken as far as possible or, quite simply, until the student decides to move on to some other topic or issue. Both logical and creative (or lateral) thinking are introduced, applied and nurtured along the way. A keyword for this element is sharing.

Mentoring, like teaching and tutoring, as well as counselling, has a strong measure of challenge. It is not an easy process, something nice for a relaxed Saturday afternoon, or a means of putting into practice one’s own pet theory of learning. For much of the time, it is necessarily serious but it can never be patronising. On the other hand, it should be enjoyable for both the mentor and the protégé. Arthur Koestler 2 helps to justify the underlying philosophy of this approach in his triptych of the Sage, the Artist and the Jester. The mentor is challenged to fulfil all three of these roles. The keyword is eclecticism.

Stimulation is another underlying process, working in both directions. The protégé is anything from interested in to excited by whatever topic, issue or project is in hand. If this does not happen, then the relationship might not be working very well. It must never be a chore or a routine extra‑curricular activity for the student. It should always be something to look forward to because it will be informative, motivating and fun. The mentor, too, is stimulated, quite often by the flow of ideas and the very enthusiasm of the student during the two‑way process. Any proverbial fly on the wall will be deafened by the chatter that goes on. Much of the stimulation for the mentor comes from the challenge of dealing with the student’s keenness, the new ideas that suddenly emerge, and sometimes the sheer need to keep just one step ahead.

There is an unusual level of equality in the relationship, whereby the protégé should feel able to express ideas, to ask questions, and to disagree with the mentor. The mentor, in turn, is thinking at the student’s level, whether it be ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than his/her own, and not making value judgements. Although the relationship is usually initiated by a teacher in conjunction with parents, there should be no pressure to perform. Mentoring is different from teaching and tutoring in that it does not aim at producing tangible results. If they emerge, that is an extra bonus for all concerned. There is most certainly no similarity, here, with coaching a child to pass a test or an examination. The keynote is genuine concern, because it underpins the mentor’s interest in the student’s overall personal development, with an emphasis on creativity, intelligence and intellect. 

Now let’s have a bit of fun

We’ve had the serious stuff, by way of introduction. Now, in case this paper disappears into the foggy realms of pedagogical and metacognitive theory, here are a few examples of conversations with children and of what actually happens when a mentor and an enquiring child get together. They are drawn from personal experience.

Damien

Damien was aged about five or six when I moved into a home unit in his street. Along with the other children of the neighbourhood, he had watched the units being built, and befriended the builder. The fact that I moved in made no difference. The kids just turned up on the doorstep. On his preliminary tour of inspection, Damien trotted down the passage to check each room. I was busy on one of those old‑fashioned machines called a typewriter but I could hear his footsteps on the wooden floor. He stopped outside the loo, paused, and came back to my desk. The conversation went very much like this:

‘Brian, do you want to go to the toilet?’

‘No thank you.’

There was a pause for thought.

‘Brian, please may I use your toilet?’

‘Yes, of course!’

And off he trotted, at high speed. I heard what was happening, though I could not see it. As soon as he entered the loo, he pulled the handle and flushed the toilet. He waited for the flush to finish, and then quietly continued his inspection of the other rooms. I knew straight away what he had discovered: 30 years ago, I used something which was relatively new and which he had never seen before — LooBloo or somesuch. The water in the toilet was therefore blue.

Nothing more was said. He was satisfied. He had, in a roundabout way, confirmed that (a) I did not pee blue, and (b) the blue water came out of the cistern. What fascinated me was that spontaneous opening question: ‘Brian, do you want go to the toilet?’ When I was his age, in the 1940s, I would have been roundly told off and probably punished for asking an adult such a question. But that’s another tangent.

I was not Damien’s mentor. I was simply the new man in the home unit across the road. But that small incident provided me with a little more insight into how a child observes, forms concepts and formulates questions. A mentor must have an understanding of these things.

Simon

Simon, aged about 11 at the time, was one of my gifted protégés. He was brought to my house — for I had by then moved out of the home unit — by his father on a fortnightly basis. Blackbirds had built a nest in a creeping plant on a neighbour’s fence. It was clearly visible at eye‑level when you stood next to the fence, and you could see right into it when you stood on the back porch, which was three steps higher. I thought Simon would be interested, so I arranged with the neighbour to take him over to have a look at it. I also advised my neighbour that I was bringing a very intelligent little boy.

It was a hot summer day, and Simon was wearing a black t‑shirt. After we had inspected the nest, and the fledglings therein, my neighbour started explaining that there was a solar heating system up on the roof, which warmed up their in‑ground swimming pool. Simon was dutifully interested but not particularly enthusiastic. Like me, he is more interested in language and people.

As we walked back across the road to my place, perspiring in the summer sun, he announced, ‘You know, you could make a very good solar heating system if you had 100 black t‑shirts, because they absorb so much heat’. Thus the conversation turned to somewhat surrealistic methods of organising 100 black t‑shirts and transferring the generated heat to the swimming pool. Simon was a highly lateral thinker. He is now doing very well at university, studying classical subjects.

Mary

When Mary aged 11 first visited with her Mum and 8‑year‑old brother, so that we could all sound each other out and see if a mentor relationship was feasible, I played one of my old tricks. They had already been told that I do not live in a house, but a museum, art gallery, library and dustbowl. The place is full of artefacts and pictures collected in several countries over a period of about 55 years. There are also about 5,000 books. When a child, or anyone at all, visits for the first time, I quietly watch them, noting how much they see and what catches their interest. Simon, for instance, was attracted to one or two carved wooden figures from central Africa, and on several visits picked them up to run his hands over the smooth surface and the beautifully formed contours. Others have been attracted by the perforated ivory spheres, six inside each other, from China, working out how they were made from one solid piece of ivory.

At a certain stage, when we had got to know each other, I asked Mary and her brother, ‘Which of my books do you think is the longest?’ Now there are great tomes on the shelves such as the two volumes of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, with 2,000 pages each, and the huge Monier Williams 1,300 page Sanskrit‑English Dictionary. They usually point to a book of that nature. I then produce a book which measures 13cm by 17cm and is merely 1cm thick. I open it, and ask the child to hold it carefully, while I hold the first page and walk across the room. You need a large room for this. The first page spreads out to a length of 4 metres. The book, you see, is a facsimile of The Grand Panorama of London first printed in 1844, and is most certainly the ‘longest’ book in my house.

Yes, it’s a horrible pun on the word ‘long’, but it goes down very well indeed with kids who appreciate that puns can indeed be horrible. It also helps to establish the fact that we can have some fun with language, doesn’t it?

Allen

When Allen, aged 8, visited me for an early mentor session, he discovered a board next to the fridge upon which I had pinned an assortment of cartoons from the old magazine Punch. I could hear him howling with laughter, so I went to see what he had found. It was a picture of several Daleks standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The caption read: ‘Well that certainly buggers up our plan to conquer the universe’. If, dear reader, you don’t know what a Dalek is, you’d better go and find out and you’ll see why Allen found it hilarious. It told me that he had a very well developed sense of humour and that we would get along fine.

The continuing challenge

When tutoring, I have to follow whatever the student’s school curriculum dictates, helping with skills in English expression and both logical and creative thinking but, I hasten to add, never doing the work for the child. A tutor is accountable to parents for tangible results, in one way or another. To achieve those results, we concentrate on school assignments, albeit going along tangents from time to time to expand the student’s knowledge, thinking and experience (all my private students have been Asian). As a tutor, I read the student’s school reports, and take careful note of all comments by teachers. Indeed, I sometimes have to restrain myself from taking an entirely different approach, disagreeing with the ideas being taught, or just occasionally correcting a teacher’s mistakes. Tutoring is a school-centred curriculum‑driven process.

Mentoring is a student‑centred process, requiring mental agility. Here are just a few of the topics and issues I have discussed with children over the past few years. Some arose from a student’s interest, others were tangents we explored along the way.

bulletKing Arthur and Merlin
bulletLayamon’s Brüt
bulletmedieval knights, armour and castles
bullet Stonehenge, Carnac, and other ancient monuments
bulletCeltic mythology
bulletdragons (plenty of those)
bulletBeowulf
bulletOld English alphabet and spelling
bulletMiddle English ditto
bullet multiple‑plot/ending stories (remember those?)
bulletquest stories
bulletstory structure
bullet paragraphing, flow and logic
bulletthe use, under‑use and over‑use of adjectives
bulletdangling participles
bulletcomplex and obscure sentences
bulletword processors as working tools
bulletBASIC computer programming
bulletDungeons and Dragons type role‑play games
bulletIs Harry Potter literature and what is             ‘literature’?
bulletscience fiction fantasy
bulletcyberpunk writing (that didn’t last long, thank goodness)
bulletcapital punishment
bulletthe origins of community values
bulletvariety of religious beliefs
bulletvalidity of religious beliefs
bulletthe novels of Herman Hesse
bulletJungian archetypes
bulletthe music of Sibehus, Mahler, etc.
bullet 

In summary

A tutor:

bulletis expected to:

*        impart knowledge

*        teach skills

*        produce tangible results

bulletdoes not usurp the school’s or teachers’ methods or expectations
bulletsticks to the subject, assignment or current specific need
bulletobserves school curriculum and expectations
bulletis accountable to parents for progress and improvement.
bullet 

A mentor:

bulletshares and draws out knowledge
bulletintroduces skills if and when appropriate
bullethopes for but does not insist on tangible results
bulletconducts the relationship on a one‑to-one basis independently of school or teachers
bulletexpands outwards from a subject, following whatever tangent arises and...
bulletworks inwards from a subject, analysing and exploring
bulletfollows the protégé’s curriculum
bulletis accountable to the protégé, who continues only if s/he wishes
bulletkeeps in touch with parents, giving progress reports, on an informal basis, for there is also an accountability to the parents.

Some brief case studies

Mario

In the 1970s, after I had given a talk on publishing, at a primary school I was asked by a teacher if Mario, then in Year 5, could send his stories for comment. He was a keen writer but his NESB parents were unable to provide him with the help and support the teacher believed he needed.

His first offering was a long fantasy story using the then popular multiple choice plot structure. Many of the paths led to untimely deaths. There were, in fact, 37 ways of meeting one’s doom, one of which I recall was ‘having one’s private parts scorched by a dragon’.

He continued sending stories, and we developed a regular exchange of letters. At one stage, when he was about 15, he sent me a photograph of one of his surrealistic paintings, and I was amazed at its similarity to one I had done at the same age. I also introduced him to BASIC computer programming, and it was not long before he was sending me graphics programs that he had compiled, far in advance of anything I ever achieved.

Our correspondence continued for 12 years, moving from dragons to a wider range of topics and issues. There were two breaks, when Mario stopped writing for a while, but he did not finally disappear into the real world until he had finished the fourth year of his university studies. Along the way, he was the recipient of the Premier’s award for the top student in the State. I met him only once, towards the end of his secondary schooling, when he asked if he could come and meet me. The mentoring in this case was conducted entirely by correspondence.

Simon

I was asked to become Simon’s mentor when he was 9. When he was 18, I asked him to tell me what he felt about the early years of our relationship. Here is a summary of his comments:

bulletHe had been encouraged to think in a different, lateral way.
bulletWe were able to ‘drift from topic to topic’.
bulletWe did things he wasn’t able to do at school (because of the limitations of the curriculum).
bulletAs time went by, he was able to see and make connections across many areas.
bulletI introduced him to my concept and practice of ‘thinking aloud on paper’.

For several years, his father brought him to my house for face‑to‑face sessions. His writing interests moved through fairytale fantasy to medieval quest to cyberpunk (which somewhat alarmed me), and eventually back to Gothic fantasy with the addition of archetypal heroes and maidens who had romantic inclinations and more besides. Along the way he wrote, or started writing, in many genres including a short play in the style of Oscar Wilde. When he wanted to learn the BASIC programming language, I gave him most of my own old material before the Christmas holidays. When he came back after the holiday, he had taught himself to a level that took me two or three years to reach and he continued accelerating thereafter.

When upper secondary school studies made demands on his time, we did most of our communication by phone and by mail. In due course, when there were issues he did not want to discuss over the phone, and he had reached an age where he could safely travel alone by train, he commenced visiting me, at his own request, when he wanted or needed a conversation over a convivial cup of tea.

He discovered Nietzsche, Hesse and Mahler all in one go, and this provided a marvellous basis on which to explore teenage angst and also for me to introduce him to Jung’s psychology of archetypes. I had read many of Hesse’s novels long before they became trendy, and now had the opportunity to read them again so that I could involve myself in deep and earnest discussions of their symbolism and meaning.

From my collection of recordings, I was able to introduce him to Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde and then move on to other composers including Stravinsky. Simon was already a talented violinist with a love of music, ranging from classical and opera to an obscure and extraordinarily noisy form of heavy metal in which he played guitar and drums.

Our cultural backgrounds and religious traditions are vastly different, but because of his intellect and sensitivity we were able to continue a dialogue about religion, philosophy and values for a few years. His story writing moved into a distinctly adult phase. Nevertheless, we maintained the ability to wander into verbal nonsense, arising largely from the fact that nine years ago I told him about my self-destructing carpet slugs, self‑multiplying coat‑hangers and synchronously failing electric light bulbs. From the age of about 16, Simon has been one of only two or three people who understand my own obscurely lateral sense of humour.

Mary

I was recommended as mentor in writing when Mary was 11. We established rapport during our first exploratory meeting. Her mother brought her for a visit occasionally, spurred by, ‘Please can we go to Brian’s more often?’ Mary bubbled over with news and enthusiasm. We had wonderful wandering conversations, but also concentrated on whatever theme she was currently writing about. We exchanged occasional letters, in which I incorporated three elements: specific advice, extension of knowledge by introducing new topics, and verbal nonsense.

I asked Mary’s mother to express her thoughts on the usefulness of our relationship. Here is a summary. Mary has exposure to someone:

bulletwith wide ranging interests
bulletwho can deal with a wide range of topics not available at school
bulletwith many items (my museum of artefacts) to see, handle and discuss
bulletwho points out interesting items, e.g., birds’ nests, a possum nest, space‑craft
bulletwho uses and encourages a sophisticated and new vocabulary
bulletwho encourages sustained conversation
bulletwho is an adult able to join her in attention to a current activity
bulletwho takes her seriously.

Did I say ‘space‑craft’? Yes, there was one in my front garden, you see. A week before their first visit, a colourful rubber ball appeared in the gutter on the road outside my house. I left it where it was, assuming that some child would eventually retrieve it. On the morning of the day Mary, her mother, and her little brother were due to come for their first visit, I found the rubber ball on my lawn. I had not put it there. When little brother kicked it, as little brothers tend to do, I issued a dire warning about the revenge of creatures from outer space, for this rubber ball was actually a space‑craft, and suggested he read one of John Wyndham’s remarkable science fiction stories 3.

A couple of days later, when I came home from a chat with the next door neighbours, the space‑craft had disappeared. Next, I received a letter from Mary telling me that they had all been to the beach and encountered...  the space‑craft (another rubber ball, of course, but she had picked up the nonsense fantasy). Little brother had once again kicked it and then they had all rushed home in case of attack from the extraterrestrial invaders.

Fantasy can be infectious!

Here is an extract from Mary’s own description of a visit, used by kind permission of Mary and her parents:

... We have a chat about what we’ve been doing recently or about how much I’ve written and gradually we seem to head round to the story I’m writing. I tell him what ideas I’ve had, what changes I want to make; he rolls off a wonderful list of creative ideas. By now I’m on fire! Brian goes into his study and sometimes doesn’t reappear for quite some time. I look at the paintings on the wall, of sunny meadows, at the interesting objects around the room, and at the little booklets about Dali and Escher. Now Brian returns, hardly visible beneath an enormous pile of books. We look through them together; at the pictures, stories and information.

I am itching to have my fingers on the keyboard, clicking like lightning. Instead I engrave my ideas in my mind and pass him another story. He reads through it while I sink into the couch and massage my throat. Too much talking! I listen to him read through it and wait for him to stop. Sure enough... ‘I followed him into the mysterious, enveloping darkness. We rushed through roaring fire and numbing ice. We struggled through overpowering currents and crushing waves. We ran through mysterious silence and ... That’s the tenth ‘mysterious’ in the story!

Whoops! I lean over and count. He’s right, of course! First it was too many groups of three exclamation marks, then too many ‘exciting’s!

I leave the house trembling with excitement and frustration at not having my computer right here in the car with me. During the drive back I am usually silent because I am deep in thought. I am already anticipating my next journey to Brian!

 

The challenges and also the responsibilities of mentoring are many. I have not referred to the patience that is sometimes required or the unpredictability encountered, especially when the student is battling through the turbulent teens. But the rewards, even if they are not always tangible, are certainly recognisable and make it all worthwhile.

Perhaps mentoring gifted students is a gift, in all senses of that word.

 

© Copyright 2001, 2003, 2005  Brian Barratt. May not be reproduced in any form without the writer’s permission and an appropriate acknowledgement. Please respect copyright on intellectual property.

 

1 Australian Journal of Remedial Education, Volume 25, No. 4, 1994, reprinted in Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 3, No. 3, 1998.

2 The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler, Hutchinson, London 1964.

3 ‘Meteor’ in Seeds of Time, John Wyndham, Michael Joseph 1956.

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