Clare Smale and Andrew Gibbons consider how mentoring encourages the development of a learning organisation culture

Mentoring “…is a relationship rather than an activity” (Audrey Collin). For me, this encapsulates mentoring really well and it clearly distinguished mentoring from other forms of learning and development. I have been a mentor for most of the 12 years I have taught in secondary schools and have several good friends as a result of a relationship built upon mentoring. Relationships may last a lifetime and are often developed with people who have been a long-term and positive influence on our development. It will be with someone who has the unusual and valuable qualities that mean whatever else is happening, they maintain a genuine interest in our continued development. This article is for anyone who has an interest in making mentoring work.

The world of schools and education is constantly changing and that puts pressure on teachers. In addition to this, there has been a reevaluation of the way that people learn at work and the support that they need to continue to develop. Mentoring is seen as an important tool in these processes and although the term mentoring comes from Greek mythology, it only became fashionable in the 1990s. A good mentor can plug the gaps in your experience and there are points in every teacher’s life where a few words from a wise counsel can make all the difference. Sometimes just hearing yourself describe things out loud can clear your head – thinking things through alone can confuse you further!

“So what is mentoring? It is a one-to-one process of helping individuals to learn and develop and takes a longer-term perspective, which focuses on the person’s career and their development. It is distinguished from coaching which has a more immediate performance-based focus.” TABBRON ET AL, 1997

What are the advantages of mentoring?

  • It has flexibility – it requires only time and two people.
  • It is an off-line activity that gives it an element of informality.
  • It is work focused.
  • It is unique to the needs and interests of each person.
  • It engages hearts as well as minds.
  • It is a feedback system.
  • It includes the full range of working and human activity.
  • It can happen alongside, or in addition to, all other learning processes.
  • It is a value-added activity.

Characteristics of a good mentor

1. Does not blame – stays neutral

2. Will give honest answers

3. Not intimidating – easy to approach any time

4. Good at their own job

5. Actively questions you

6. Enabling, caring, open and facilitative

7. Gives constructive and positive feedback

8. Provides subtle guidance but ensures you make the decisions

9. Genuinely interested in you on a personal level

10. Willing to debate, argue and discuss.

Unfortunately, mentoring won’t make your boss like you, it won’t sort out all your problems and is unlikely to make you attractive to the opposite sex!

The advantage of mentoring over other forms of development activity is that when it works well, it focuses on our real learning needs on a specific and personal level. A deep irony is that often, the more structured and organised we make mentoring, the less likely it is to really work. I feel that mentors are like strawberries and noses – its best if you pick your own. Thus even the best-intentioned efforts to make mentoring work can founder, as it will have its most positive effect when it evolves naturally, often without consciously considering mentoring is happening at all.

Mentors worthy of the title somehow get the balance right between ‘over’ and ‘under’ helping and do this deliberately, and with the skills the rest of us mere mortals never possess. Thus a mentor will know when they are providing more guidance than they should and will do this only when it prevents the mentee from floundering or becoming needlessly frustrated. The most competent mentors know when to ‘under’ help, to avoid unhealthy dependence upon them, and when best to allow the mentees to find their own way.

Personality types unsuited to mentoring

The Fixer – these people are too self-centred and want to sort everything out themselves.

The Bureaucrat – too rule-bound and controlling to accommodate different approaches.

The Pleaser – mentoring involves confronting, not just having a cosy relationship.

The Talker – active listening and developing rapport are key components of successful mentoring.


It is possible to develop mentor competence but only when those who possess a platform of existing or potential interpersonal skills that provides the basis for further development. An irony we see repeatedly is that those most keen to become mentors are people we wouldn’t let within a mile of the role, and that equally, many intuitive, ‘natural’ mentors don’t recognise their own abilities, and are too rarely put in a position to show their capabilities.

The 5 stages of mentoring

  • Gaining awareness
  • Building rapport
  • Setting direction
  • Making progress
  • Moving on

Who are mentors?

Mentoring, like management, is a function not a title. We earn the label by our deeds and not just what we call ourselves.

Any would be or current mentor must realise just what a responsible role it is, and that it is not an opportunity for cloning. Mentoring relationships can be abused by those who see it as an imprinting activity. The very best mentors actually enjoy being challenged by their ever less-dependent mentee, and see it as a relationship, during which, as it matures, they will concede as many times as they suggest. The mentor’s role is essentially to accelerate the rate at which a person learns.

The TES reported in March 2003 that the Department for Education and Skills is aware of the need to improve the quality of mentoring and there could even be the possibility that mentoring skills become a threshold requirement.

Mentoring is not to be taken lightly, as it is potentially a powerful intervention in the development of others. It can involve having to deal with a lot of personal issues that may have had no other means of outlet or resolution. Mentors have to accept that they will have in all likelihood, to put a lot more in than they get back.”Mentors are generally highly placed, powerful, knowledgeable individuals who are willing to share their expertise but who are not threatened by the protege’s potential for equalling or surpassing them” (D Marshall-Hunt).

In conclusion, in the right hands, mentoring remains a powerful and cost-effective method of encouraging development. We all need to overcome our reluctance to ask for help and the perception we have of ‘failing’, and seek the advice of others. Saying “I need you” is the beginning of a new relationship and a learning journey.

People don’t want mentors who are…

  • Poor at keeping in touch
  • Lacking in knowledge and intergrity
  • Intolerant and impatient

Benefits of structured mentoring

  • Increased organisational communication and understanding
  • Retention of the right people
  • Encourages the development of a learning organisation culture
  • Helps bridge the gap between INSET and ‘real’ classroom application


Making Mentoring Work – Alison Tabbron, Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook. Training for Quality 5/1 1997 Pages 6-9.

Mentoring – Audrey Collin Industrial and Commercial Training March / April 1988

Mentoringa process for growth or ‘buzz word’ for the 90s? – Terence Deane Mentors and the Successful Woman – Ruth Halcomb

Mentorship: A career training and development tool. David Marshall-Hunt and Carol Michael.Academy of Management Review,Volume 8 No 3 1983

Mentoring Manager – Gareth Lewis ISBN 027364484X

Someone to Talk To – Stefan Stern – Management Today July 2002

Andrew Gibbons is an independent management and development management and development consultant. He is working on mentoring with organisations in the public and private sector.

This has been adapted with permission from an article written by Andrew Gibbons and originally published in the Training Journal (2000)

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 1 Autumn 2003.