The "Soul" of Mentorship

The incredible new Disney Pixar film Soul resonated with me on many levels. Soul explores life, the Great Beyond, and what makes us humans truly ourselves. Besides being insightful, existential, and life-affirming, this was a film about mentorship. This tribute to mentorship led me to a few key takes aways. The first is that mentorship may be a noun, but it’s also a verb. The second is that mentorship isn’t just a relationship between a mentor and mentee, but a two-way street where mentors and mentees learn from each other through a mutually beneficial relationship. Finally, it’s not being mentored that matters, but how you are being mentored that really makes the difference. If you haven’t seen the film, there are no real spoilers here, but you will certainly see more of what I'm saying if you have or do.

Mentorship is something that occupies my thoughts and my actions a lot. Our final OnEdMentors episode before the Winter Break celebrated the 1st anniversary of The Mentoree, but we are here because we started there. The OnEdMentors show began almost 4 years ago, and I was one of the panellists. Aiming to mentor pre-service teachers, we learned so much from each other. We wanted to do more with the show. I had an idea that I ran with and, through an evolution from a collaborative inquiry to a 1:1 mentorship focus, to a community that supports many different forms of educational mentorship, The Mentoree was born in response to the educators who were becoming a part of it and driving the different ways we could learn with and from each other. There are many highlights from the episode that features our leadership team including myself, Christine Chin and Dr. Teri Rubinoff as well as my mentor and our strategy advisor, Karen Friedman, and our resident sketchnoter and critical friend, Jen Giffen. As I watched Soul, I could hear many quotes from the episode that helped extend the parallels from the film to what I have learned about mentorship through our work at The Mentoree. Stephen Hurley guest hosted this reflective anniversary episode that I have now re-listened to several times.

Mentorship is an action word. It is not only a state of being mentored or the relationship between a mentor and mentee. It does not only have a giver and a passive receiver. In the movie Soul, there is a character named 22 who has had many unsuccessful mentorship experiences. She says. “I’ve had thousands of mentors who have failed and now hate me.” Not one of those mentors, however, engaged her with herself. Instead, they all tried to impart who they were on her, and they were disappointed and even angry when they were unable to do so. The kind of mentorship we foster at The Mentoree is about meeting educators where they are and moving them forward on their own terms. It requires seeing your mentees as full people, not empty vessels. Further, one of the things that make 22’s mentorship experience with Joe, the main character, distinct from her previous ones is that it was experiential. So much of the movie is driven by the actions and interactions of the mentor and mentee. Mentorship should be a verb.

Mentorship should be reciprocal. Being a mentor takes a learning stance and a level of comfort with not having all of the answers. Everyone on the panel of our Anniversary Episode shared one reason why mentorship is most impactful when the mentor and mentee are in a position to learn from each other:

Karen said:

“Of all the people on our panel tonight, I’m a person who has been a teacher, a vice-principal, a principal, a superintendent, and an associate director of education. I want to come back to that moment about NTIP, which is often in education where mentorship dies. In a really positive relationship where there’s trust, everybody needs to grow. You don’t suddenly stop needing that opportunity to grow no matter what your role is - whether you’re staying a teacher or entering into a different role. It’s not only a situation where it’s about getting help; it’s about really getting excited...When one teaches, two learn...I became Noa’s Mentor, and I would say that she’s mentoring me just as much as I’m mentoring her. It’s an extremely democratic process…That need to learn never ceases. You don’t stop needing that sense of support, collaboration, and excitement... ”

Being in an egalitarian relationship to be mentored but to also be viewed as a contributors makes it more powerful and gives both parties something to take away from the experience.

The support of a mentorship relationship should not only be something we focus on in the early years of teaching. Mentorship can be a greta support to educators throughout their career in education. In Ontario, we have this wonderful program called the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP). It is geared to teachers who are new to a board, and it is a mentorship program aimed to help them get the support they need to be set up for a successful first year.

Jen said:

“...we see those NTIP years, the first couple of years, as this is when you need a mentor...I have changed my role in education 6/7 times and, at every phase, I’ve needed a mentor. I think what The Mentoree does is it goes beyond the NTIP process and says it’s okay to need help and support beyond your first years of teaching, even if we stay in a classroom setting or in a school... I love that I can be both a mentor and a mentee in this model.”

Stephen used the phrase dual citizenship to refer to the mentorship relationships that we cultivate at The Mentoree because Mentors can be Mentees at the same time. Teri responded by looking at the layers of this interchange and what it means to learn with and from a mentee. She also spoke about the experience of acting as a mentor to someone while being mentored by someone else. “You can have a 1:1 relationship that is operating simultaneously… and I have found that, oftentimes, the earlier career educators have a broader focus on the mentorship relationship... not always sure where they want to focus on.” She spoke as a more experienced educator who realized that she can reach out to a mentor when she feels there is a gap in her practice or is transitioning into a new role. There are lots of options within this notion of dual citizenship. In Soul, we see that both the mentor and mentee are learning from each other, and that makes their mentorship relationship so very profound and meaningful. We all have something to teach, and we all have something to learn.

How are you being mentored? This question was introduced to me by the inimitable Jim Strachan on an episode of OnEdMentors on Mentorship. Jim is the catalyst behind NTIP and a humble leader who had made significant contributions to my thinking on mentorship. One key aspect of our work at The Mentoree is that the Mentee drives the learning. That is why we see our work as both builders of professional learning and efficacy. Educators are often not in control of what they learn, and it takes self-direction to really own the process and results of learning. In order to be most effective, educational mentorship should give teachers a better sense of their work and themselves. Many of us were driven to be teachers because we believe it helps us contribute something meaningful to the world and, in order to maintain that, we need to see our learning in line with our personal and professional paradigms and learning quests. It has to connect to you to be meaningful.

Christine said:

"Everything in education feels like it's in flux...[when listening to the issues educators share, specially for those teaching online,] one of the themes is isolation. The Mentoree creates space for people to build that network, that community, that safety net [for] when we’re struggling and to celebrate the wonderful things that happen. Everyone is looking for that sense of connection, and I think that is one of the biggest things The Mentoree is offering to people."

The mentorship experience has to work for you, and you should feel better about your work and feel more connected to yourself, your students and your professional learning network (PLN) because of it. Connection and meaning are some of the reasons for the successful mentorship experience in Soul.

At The Mentoree, because it’s not imposed on you by something external like a school or board, you don’t have to remain in a mentorship relationship that isn’t working. At the same time, there is no shelf life on mentorship, so it can go on for as long as it works for you.

Teri talked about her relationship with her mentee, Hoda. Their relationship started when Hoda was in her first year at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. Now that Hoda is in her first year of teaching she is going through NTIP. Teri explained that she wondered how her role as mentor might change, or even if it would still be necessary, now that Hoda had an NTIP mentor. She then reflected on the idea of establishing mentoring webs that NTIP encourages and realized that she still had a lot to offer as part of Hoda’s web. Given their established relationship, and her position outside the school board, Teri realized that she could support Hoda by pulling all the pieces together. In addition to NTIP she's getting support from a lot of different people in her new role.” Another element that is unique to Teri’s mentorship through The Mentoree is its potential for longevity. As Teri pointed out,, “NTIP is a finite program and the idea that Hoda can take me with her for as long as she’d like through her different roles.... it’s really nice to have that long-standing relationship as she moves through different stages and roles in her career….” There’s a wellbeing component that comes along with this longevity. “The fact that we have this stable relationship is kind of an anchor for both of us, and it’s been a stable influence for both of us despite the changes that are all around us.”

Teri and Hoda are in a reciprocal mentorship relationship, learning from each other in meaningful and flexible ways.The longevity of this mentorship is evidence that this relationship continues to work for both of them because it has evolved from what Hoda needed in the faculty to what she needs in her first year as a teacher. When we have the freedom to ask ourselves how something is working for us, it help us own the experience. In The Mentoree model of 1:1 Mentorship, Mentees have power and they get to decide. That self-determination is like a quality assurance that how we are being mentored is making us feel better or moving us forward on our learning continuums. Soul is a movie that takes a deep dive into self-actualization and meaning, and that is what mentorship should be helping to cultivate for each mentee. In the end, it can often impact the mentor in a similar way, affirming their sense of self and their professional direction.

Mentorship has many meanings and interpretations, and I believe that Soul can help us think about mentorship in beautiful ways. These are in line with our vision of The Mentoree as a community and as a place for different forms of educational mentorship that helps us help ourselves, direct our learning, get “re-excited” about our work in education, and help us improve our practice. Mentors are everywhere, but to optimize our experience with mentorship, we must know ourselves and be active drivers of our experience. In the ending credits, it says that Soul is “dedicated to all the mentors in our lives.” One of the things that drives my work at The Mentoree is the powerful idea that finding the right mentors and the right mentorship models can help us grow. Its creation was dedicated to all of the mentors in my life, and I am proud to be a part of something that helps educators at any and every stage of their career. We are natural mentors, and educators are often the difference makers for students. We can also be the difference makers for each other. Mentorship feeds the soul and helps you get jazzed about your work.