Faculty members are highly trained experts. Yet when it comes to how to be a great mentor — and how to seek out great mentors for themselves — they often find themselves learning as they go.

“We are rarely taught mentoring as part of our professional training,” said Monique Dufour, a collegiate assistant professor of history and a faculty fellow in the Office of Faculty Affairs.

In fact, according to data from the 2020 COACHE Survey of Faculty Job Satisfaction, 54.7 percent of Virginia Tech faculty either somewhat or strongly disagreed with the statement: “My institution provides adequate support for faculty to be good mentors.” Among associate professors, the number rose to 67.4 percent.

That feedback spurred the Office of Faculty Affairs, part of the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, to develop more mentoring resources for faculty at different stages of their careers. Building on the success of the New Faculty Mentoring Grant program, Faculty Affairs is offering a Mentoring March series of on-campus events that address various aspects of peer and student mentoring with writing retreats, a teaching evaluation workshop, a workshop about co-authoring with graduate students, and a mid-career mentoring summit.

Mentoring, it turns out, is more than what we think it is. Formal, one-on-one meetings with a sage elder in one’s field have given way to nimble, ever-evolving networks of just-in-time mentorship. The different forms that mentoring can take will be the subject of the mentoring summit for mid-career faculty led by Carlita Favero, a professor of biology and neuroscience at Ursinus College and a facilitator with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

“Mentoring March is a really great microcosm of all the different ways that mentoring occurs,” said Rachel Gabriele, associate vice provost for faculty affairs, “because mentoring is happening all over, everywhere.”

Whether you’ve been assigned as a mentor to a new faculty member, want to improve how you mentor students, or need some mentoring yourself, consider implementing these four ideas:  

Offer coaching, not advice. Faculty mentors may worry they don’t have all the answers. The good news: They don’t need to. Mentors are more successful when they take a coaching approach by asking questions instead of just dispensing advice, said Gabriele. Ask, for instance, “What do you think the options are? How do you feel about this option or that one? What are the obstacles?” Then articulate their options as you hear them and help them navigate their choices. If you share your own stories of similar situations, do it to offer insight and empathy, not to declare, “This is the right answer” or “Do what I did.”

Develop a relationship. Mentoring is reciprocal. “It's much like teaching,” said Barbara Lockee, associate vice provost for faculty affairs. “You can be a great teacher, but if a learner is not motivated, it’s a more challenging process.” In a like manner, a one-sided mentoring relationship won’t function well. "It’s similar to working with my doctoral students. I shouldn’t wait on a mentee to contact me when they need assistance, I need to be proactive in regularly checking in on them. It has to be a relationship of mutual respect where both parties are equally engaged.”

Negotiate expectations. As a mentor or a mentee, it is important to establish what you hope to get out of the relationship. For the mentee, this may mean communicating about the specific need you hope the mentor can address, or for the mentor, discussing the amount of time you believe you can productively commit to the relationship. Clear expectations will allow you to enter into a mentoring relationship with the assurance that you will get what you need. 

Create a network. No single person has the experience to address every situation. Encourage those you mentor to cultivate their own ad hoc board of advisors to offer insight and support. It’s something that faculty can do for themselves, too. “If I want to pursue grants, but maybe my assigned mentor doesn’t have a lot of grant experience, I can consult with another colleague who does,” said Lockee. “I was fortunate to have a team of people I could count on for guidance and different kinds of advice and motivation.”

Being a good mentor may lead you to find good mentors for yourself. In picking her mentors, Dufour said, “I've looked for the happy people who are collegial and good to work with, and who have maintained their energy over time. I try to learn from how they find meaning, satisfaction, and balance in their lives and value in their work.”

A full list of Mentoring March events is available online.