This post was written by Shara Zaval, a mentor in the Writing and Mentoring Program.
My friends and I often joke about Americans’ obsession with labeling ourselves…there’s a new Buzzfeed quiz every day that tells you which breed of dog you are and which era of clothes best fits your personality, and I personally view everyone I meet through Myers Briggs-colored glasses.
This labeling fixation can make it particularly difficult to accept the inherently multi-faceted, slightly amorphous nature of being a Girls Write Now mentor. Is a mentor supposed to be a teacher, helping her mentee hone her craft with pre-planned lessons and a red pen? Or a friend, asking about her mentee’s crush as they sip hot chocolates and wander around a craft fair? Or maybe a mentor is supposed to be a guidance counselor, listening to her mentee’s issues at home or fears for the future with open ears, gently giving advice to nudge her in the right direction. If you were to create a “which role is most like a mentor” quiz on Buzzfeed, the site would probably crash.
It was therefore a bit of a relief when this “mentor identity crisis” was demonstrated — and actually embraced — during one of the final activities at the Girls Write Now mid-year training session on Saturday, January 10th. The organizers put up signs at different parts of the room that listed a variety of roles — teacher, guidance counselor, friend, amateur and taskmaster. Then, they asked mentors to stand near the sign that best reflected the way they interact with their mentees in particular scenarios.
This exercise was refreshing for a couple of reasons. First, it was amazing to see that so many mentors had different approaches to engaging with their mentees. While some categories were more popular than others — no one felt like a taskmaster when talking to their mentee about feelings, for instance — it proved that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to be a mentor. One person might feel like a guidance counselor when discussing the future with her mentee while another might feel like an amateur, because, as one mentor put it “I don’t even know what my life will look like in ten years!” And both approaches are equally fine (sigh of relief).
Paradoxically, I found it fascinating that some mentors gave the same reasons for identifying with certain roles, even though the roles themselves were different. For example, one mentor said that she felt like “a guidance counselor” when talking about her mentee’s feelings because she knew that it was her role to push her mentee forward. She didn’t just want to act like a friend and say, “it’s OK, girl! You’re the best” but to actually listen, to dig deeply into the topics they were discussing and give her mentee a safe space to talk.
Another mentor said she felt like a “friend” when discussing feelings. When her mentee told her that her mother had passed away the year before, she responded by saying that she didn’t personally know how her mentee felt, but she wanted to understand and create a comfortable space for her to speak freely. She also wasn’t saying “it’s OK, girl!” and moving on; for her, being a friend meant carefully listening, providing support and giving advice when need be.
The two women’s different definitions of “friend” showed me that not only was “mentor” a nebulous role that encompassed multiple others, but that all labels are open to interpretation. Being a mentor is exponentially subjective, then, and instead of worrying about mentoring “correctly,” we should celebrate our unique relationships with our mentees and allow them to develop in whatever way fits best.
So thanks, Mentor Training II, for making this idea hit home, and take that, Buzzfeed. Now, please excuse me while I go figure out which Oscar-nominated actress should play me in a movie.