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4 Steps to Create a Circle of Mentors

Written by: Laura Baecher
Published on: Jun 13, 2022

Photo credit: BullRun/Adobe Stock

The end of a calendar year is usually just a midpoint pause for us on academic calendars. We feel the hectic rush to the finish line with grading, and yet the lure of a fresh new year tugs at us as well. What has this year meant for us personally and professionally? Where do we see ourselves going next year? This can be a time for renewal and carving out some plans for new directions. Mentors in our place of work play a critical role in this process. Mentoring programs particularly benefit minoritized employees and women.

For instance:

mustang mentoring 2011
Mustang Mentoring 2011” by bujiie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

However, many of us would like to have mentoring from beyond our current workplace. If we don’t already have a healthy circle of mentors, one of the of the most important steps we can take in our career development is to actively seek out the kind of personal development we can only gain from one-to-one conversations with mentors. The term “mentor” has a lot of meanings depending on the context, but here, I use the World Education Services definition of mentorship:

A relationship between two people where the individual with more experience, knowledge, and connections is able to pass along what they have learned to a more junior individual within a certain field. The more senior individual is the mentor, and the more junior individual is the mentee.

The mentor benefits because they are able to lead the future generation in an area they care about and ensure that best practices are passed along; meanwhile, the mentee benefits because they have proven that they are ready to take the next step in their career and can receive the extra help needed to make that advancement.

Over the course of our career, we find ourselves moving in and out of regular contact with our mentors. Some mentors might last our entire career—we turn to them year after year, or perhaps every few years. Other mentors might be part of our lives for an intense, shorter period of time. Some mentoring relationships are highly structured and formal, while others are informal. No matter the duration or intensity, it is important to realize that there is not going to be only one mentor in your professional journey. Ideally, you have had, have, and will have, a circle of mentors who you can turn to for various questions and advice. As you move in a new direction, you will need to seek out new mentors to support you. Here are four points to keep in mind as you enhance the role of mentoring in your professional development:

1. Express Gratitude to Mentors Past

One of the key ways to sustain and nourish the mentoring relationships you have already established is to take some time to look back on the mentors who have helped us along the way. Make a list of all the people who you would consider a mentor, and then send them an email to thank them for their role in your life, and perhaps to ask a question that is on your mind about your future direction. Mentors who know us well can give us the needed praise and support we often need to give us the courage to take steps in a new direction. Don’t wait until you really need that mentor for a letter of recommendation to suddenly reappear in their lives.

2. Determine the Kind of Mentoring You Need Now

Mentoring works best when you know what you want. After you have done some life audit and résumé reflection, write out the type of job titles or roles that you aspire to have in the near future. Then, look for people in your network and beyond your network who hold those titles or have performed those roles. Be proactive and bold in reaching out to ask for connections in your online communities of practice, professional associations, frolleague network, and through friends and family members. Be specific in your request to speak for 30 minutes, for example, and open a conversation.

3. Enter the Mentoring Relationship With an Open Mind

Mentoring is a change process. When you seek out a mentor, be prepared to listen well and to be open-minded and open-hearted. It can be difficult to hear feedback that is uncomfortable or discouraging, but honest perspectives are what can really help us make key choices about how to close skill gaps or seek further learning opportunities to get us to our goals. Remember to be well-prepared and professionally dressed, and to use the mentor’s time with concrete goals for the conversation and no expectations for them to “take care” of us. Some mentors will have invaluable insights but very little time to spend, so keeping realistic expectations is important.

4. Remember That Mentoring Is Mutual

Finally, as much as we gain from being mentored, we also gain from mentoring. As Kamhi-Stein and de Oliveira state: “When you contact a leader in the field, think of ways in which the relationship can be two-way support. If you describe the potential benefits that mentors can gain from working with you, potential mentors will be more open to the idea…” Remember, too, that you can be a mentor to others. Look for ways to support current and former students as well as colleagues as they reflect upon and advance in their careers. Oftentimes, those we mentor become colleagues we later consult to mentor us!

As the year comes to an end, use this time to survey your support network and plan to strengthen and expand your circle of mentors in the months to come!

About Laura Baecher

Dr. Laura Baecher is professor of TESOL at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research interests and publications relate to teacher education, including educational technology in teacher learning, observation and coaching for English language teaching, and professional development in TESOL. Her recent books are Reflecting on Problems of Practice in TESOL and Video in Teacher Learning: Through their Own Eyes. She has served as TESOL International Association’s Teacher Education Interest Section chair, as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State, and as president of the New York State TESOL affiliate.

View all posts by Laura Baecher →

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.