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Reply To: Merlin . . . & the Lost Art of Mentorship, with Dr. John Bucher


Loving the conversation so far!

A couple things come to mind about mentoring. One observation is crystallized by your comments above, John, about the difference between a teacher and a mentor, despite some overlap:

The differentiation between a mentor and a teacher can easily become another issue of semantics. However, I would offer a few thoughts to consider. In many ways, I believe being a mentor is more about who you are in someone’s life than what you do for them. There was a process in different historical moments where a “master” would sit before a “class” with his (unfortunately for history, it was usually a “he”) back to the class and paint or sculpt a creative work. The apprentices or students would sit behind the master and create the exact same work, mimicking the master’s actions.

When I read your MythBlast essay, I found myself wondering about parallels to the mentoring relationship in contemporary society – hence my query about teachers, which admittedly was a leading question. As a junior high teacher, though there is no doubt I have influenced the lives of many students, mine was a professional and a formal role imposed by society, focused on training essential to a specific field – conjugate verbs, solve quadratic equations, understand the scientific method, and so on. I believe what success I’ve enjoyed owed less to my command of those fields than to my own sense that the real mission was to help transform these children on the cusp of adolescence into human beings (which is why, though my degree is in history, I taught literature, which is all about the human experience – and that meant I also needed to teach English, so students would have the skills to understand and discuss the stories we explored).

Teaching is a collective process (very rarely do you have just one student), but for me that involved developing a relationship with each individual student. Still, definitely distinct differences between teaching and mentoring.

Then I wondered about apprenticeship, which until recently had for centuries been the primary means of preparing an individual for a profession, especially in the craft guilds (printer, wainwright, carpenter, etc.) and the arts.

Your example, cited above, dispels that notion. Indeed, the master craftsman often exerted total control over the apprentice, who was essentially little more than an indentured servant of sorts (Benjamin Franklin’s experience comes to mind: as a youth he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer, which over time he found onerous; Franklin carefully planned his escape, fleeing not just Boston, but Massachusetts, escaping to Pennsylvania, a completely different colony, so the local authorities would not drag him back to his brother’s shop).

Today there are a number of formal mentorship programs, both in education and the professions, which do wonderful work – I’ve been involved with a few, both as a mentor and a mentee (assuming that’s a real word) – but for the most part, such “mentors” could best be described as tutors or coaches

True mentorship, it seems to me, is something less formal and more personal.

I think back to a moment from The West Wing that illustrates this dynamic (no surprise I turn to a modern myth). For those unfamiliar with that television series, in this episode Josh, a White House aide, is suffering from PTSD, which is affecting his relationships and his work. In a meltdown moment the White House chief of staff, Leo, calls him on it – but instead of firing or even reprimanding him, he recognizes Josh is suffering and gets him the help he needs.

Later in the episode, in a private moment between the two, Josh realizes Leo isn’t acting just as his boss, but taking a personal interest in his welfare. Leo, an alcoholic, then shares the following story:

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole – can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole.

Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’ “

That, for me, captures the essence of mentoring – sharing the accumulated wisdom of one’s life experience not out of duty, but love.