Ann M. Pearson

If any one leg-up boost could be bottled and sold to help new faculty become more comfortable in their roles in college teaching, the best seller would be mentoring. Receiving help—solicited or not—from a colleague who has already experienced what new faculty are encountering can be priceless. From the mundane to the critical, mentors can make the difference between faculty surviving and thriving. Between sticking it out only long enough to secure a better gig and digging in to become a staunch advocate for generations of students. Supporting faculty creates supported, successful students. Some mentoring experiences are casual and incidental—the old-timer who shows you how to jimmy the copier or the instructor from another department who helps you find a more convenient parking lot for your evening class. These partnerships are important and take some of the nervous angst out of being the newbie who isn’t quite sure where things are or how things work.

Equally important though are the intentional, deliberate professional relationships that foster an open, long-term invitation, despite the rush and noise of schedules and obligations, to stop to question, reflect, and debate. A new faculty member who has just seen his first student under the influence of some mind-altering substance in class needs a colleague with whom to debrief the strange situation. Did I handle it right? Am I helping the student by calling in help? What about the other students? What happens now? Mentors may not have all the answers or even any answers. But they can listen and commiserate with faculty who need another person for reality checks. Sometimes that’s enough.

An unintended benefit of mentoring or faculty partnering is that many times the senior faculty member in the relationship gains just as much added value by working with the newer faculty member as the other way around. The pairing becomes a true professional collaboration with each partner giving and taking ideas, suggestions, and concerns.

Mentors can also serve as a springboard. Ideas in general terms are fine, but what actions need to come forth to move good ideas forward? What barriers are in place that might interfere or cause friction? Mentors can introduce new colleagues to others at the college. Learning all the resources and processes in place to help students succeed can take a long time, and mentors can explain some of the nuances incumbent to a complex organization with many moving parts.

And just as good friends don’t reveal secrets, good mentors not only offer encouragement, but also should provide a significant form of accountability. If a faculty member is unwittingly inflicting professional self-harm, a good mentor will initiate one of those difficult conversations. This intervention could save a career, which ultimately supports student success. Sometimes a slight course modification can help faculty see the big picture and understand how to maximize their contributions. This type of realization usually doesn’t happen in isolation.

Mentoring isn’t a magic bullet. It is, however, an organic and proven mechanism that fosters one of our students’ best shots at succeeding—faculty who care.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on August 15, 2017.