Teaching as Mentoring


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Last week I blogged about Lessons Learned, when a class does not go well. This post picks up where I left off, but focuses on my best teaching experience to date. I love teaching. I view it as a form of mentoring and learning that works both ways. I learn from my students, and I have ample opportunity to work with them as they read and engage with the course materials, their peers, and me. Mentoring is important to me and this class offered lots of mentoring moments.

Last Fall I taught a new course for the Technology and Society Program, Digital Skills for Your Career and the course was amazing. I need to clarify, I co-taught with an awesome person and she helped make it successful. The students were also open to the material and learning. We also had colleagues from Career and Co-op  lecture about planning for your career trajectory, resume tips, and LinkedIn tips. The thing is that we had lots of exercises and group work for the class.

The students started off with putting together an About.me page, where they could think about who they are and what they’d like to share. The course was also meant to have them think about being in control over their digital footprints. They also had to populate a LinkedIn profile well, blog, and then give a presentation about themselves and something that they’re interested in as their final project. There was also group work during class sessions.

We had a wide array of guest speakers from government, media, technology, non-profit, entrepreneurs, and other educators. Everything fit in well and our office hours were quite busy with the students. The student feedback unofficially and officially (student evaluations) was extremely positive. What worked well is that we allowed them to be vulnerable. We talked about vulnerability and we saw that thinking and planning was frightening, and they needed a space to do this. We graded them on their writing, depth of analysis, and public speaking. Overall, the course was awesome. Several of the students shared that they were recruited via their LinkedIn profile, and others used the class to think about what was next for them.

I am teaching the course again, and by myself this time. We are going to read Tom Rath’s Strength Finders and Sheryl Sandberg’s Leaning in For Graduates. I also have lots of articles about using social or digital tools wisely. Overall, I am looking forward to the class, and I hope that this next cohort of students are as excited as I am.

Reflections: No Glares

Now that another term has almost ended, I can look over my shoulder at the previous school year and think reflect. Each year I reflect and try to learn from the previous year and then resolve to make some changes in the next year in the classroom, for my professional development or my ongoing efforts to mentor/coach students and peers. What did I do differently last year in the classroom, office hours or other interactions with my students? I resolved for more honesty. I was blunt. I was diplomatic, but more so, I was blunt. I am helpful and professional; however, I refuse to waste my students’ time with circular conversations. I do them no favors if I try to sugar-coat conversations.

What were the repercussions for me, if any? I heard more of these comments:
Thank you for being honest. I’ve never heard this before. Why am I almost done and no one has told me this? I didn’t know that this was plagiarism. Thank you for your time.

I did not have any incidents where someone stormed out of my office or a conversation escalated. If anything, I had meaningful conversations about assignments, interactions, writing, grad school, and other issues. As I have noted on numerous occasions, part of my job means that I have the good fortune to work with young people in the classroom or in my office. I love it. I would not trade this job for another as I get to teach, mentor, coach, and lead.

This last year I also thought more about my time. I strategically chose to focus my time differently. Part of it is that I had to, given a job change, but that is cause for a different post. I was not as available for extended office hours and the world did not fall apart. I expected a few day’s notice for extra appointments. What I am saying is that I established better boundaries for office houring and mentoring students. I had to protect my time thanks to the job change and I was working more. I managed my time effectively and accomplished more. And, at the same time I did not field complaints from my students. If anything, the change was better, as they commanded my full attention at times that were not pressed between meetings and I could listen.

My writing prompt for this post comes from a Swedish Proverb, “Fear less, hope more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less love more; and all good things are yours.” This last school year was filled with so much good and change. I welcome the change with a big smile and an open mind. The 2015-16 school year is half way through and I am in a great place. And, I’ll add that my little Grumpy Cat agrees and has her head on the desk!

Introspective Exercises

I am co-teaching a new course, Digital Skills for Your Career. Last night my slide deck consisted of a letter  in bullet point form to my 20 year old self. I shared with my students some regrets and points of reflection. It was blunt and at times humorous. My point was to help them with their exercises. Co-op and Career had provided them a venn diagram to fill out and for some of the students the exercise was a tough one. They needed to think about their skills, wants, and competencies. The exercise is all about introspection and self-promotion. It is not as easy as it sounds. 

And, their first assignment was due this week. We had asked them to curate a fulsome About.Me page, and in two weeks their LinkedIn URL is due. They worked away in pods chatting with one another about what is holding them back, and how to overcome self-doubt. 

Mentoring university students has taught me numerous things. One consistent issue is the uncertainty and the way it can stifle creativity, bravery, and happiness. My exercise in self-deprecation and honesty was to remind them that they are going to make mistakes and it is OK. We are three weeks into this course and I hope that they are enjoying it as much as I am. 

My photo of one of Co-op’s Slides. Thanks! 

It is the time of the year when students are thinking about what they are going to do next. Some are in their last term or last year of school and wondering if grad school is for them. It is important to have some plans. Yes, I said plans. Plan A, B, C, and maybe even a plan D. Some students want to get organized several months before they have to apply. The grad school process is a frightening one, as it makes most students do something that they are completely unfamiliar with–promoting themselves.

I find that it does not matter if the student is a strong one or one with lots of potential most still have a hard time putting together their grad school dossier. I know that I did, but I was extremely lucky to have some wonderful mentors, and was involved with a peer mentoring group. This post is going to make some suggestions that assume that you are an undergraduate thinking about applying to grad school in the Fall.

Here, we are in the Spring (almost). The firs thing that I tell my students is that the grad school application process is like having another course. You need to research the schools and programs. You need to research potential mentors and their areas of expertise. You really should not just pick a program and land there without having done some research about the courses and the faculty.

Where do you want to live? Seriously. This was a concern for me. I knew that I did not want to leave the West Coast when I was looking at Political Science programs.

What do you want to study? Which courses did you find most interesting during your undergrad career? Which courses were the most fulfilling? These might not be the courses that you did the best in, but rather that rocked your world.

Where do you picture yourself in 1 year? Three years? Five years? There is not one answer for each of these questions. There should be multiple answers and that is perfectly fine.

What do you have to do to get there? To answer any of the above questions and this question, lean on your friends and your mentors. Now, you might not think that you have any mentors. It is not like you sign an agreement with your mentor and there is an understood relationship. No, I have had students send me cards after they graduated and found out that they referred to me as their mentor. There are different levels of mentoring and for some students being at the front of the classroom is enough. And, for other students there is more engaged relationship between the student and the faculty member. My point is that you probably do have a mentor or two! Seek them out and ask them for advice.

You’ve picked a program. Now, make sure that there is 2-3 faculty to work with there. Now, this might seem ridiculous at a smaller program, so maybe you might need to look for 1-2 people to work with at the program. One of the best ways to find out if you will be successful is to chat with current grad students. Find out what the lay of the land is. Also, find out what most graduates of the program do once they finish their theses. What do most of the grads end up doing? Policy work? Continue on with PhD programs?

Now, when you find out what you think you want to do, you need to get your application in order. Who are you going to get letters of support from for your dossier? Who will review your statement of intent? As they say, get your ducks in a row. Once you get your dossier together, you will need someone to review it all. This is where your friends and your mentors are important.

This is part one of a few posts. Good luck!

Fri Fun Facts: Check In

Today’s Friday Fun Facts is dedicated to the check in. Periodically I have to take my car in to get its oil change and Canadian Tire will check the air pressure in my tires, as well as a host of other things. I am lucky to have a good dental plan and get my teeth cleaned twice per year. What about the check in at work? Some employers have annual reviews, and my  employer follows this procedure and some additional ones for the regular faculty.

But, I’m not so concerned with that right now. I’m thinking about the periodic check in that students should do with their schedules and classes. What does this include?

1. Going to class or at least having a plan for attending class. Now, you might work well with attending 75% of the lectures. I’d prefer to see students attend 80%, but hey, I’m on the other end of the equation.

2. Planning your time during the hectic post mid-term craziness. From here on out, my students are bombarded with deadline after deadline and then the final exam schedule. Free time is really an oxymoron, as they should have their time scheduled well in advance for paper writing, blog writing, and exam prep. I suggest you take out your phone or device and seriously plan out a realistic schematic of what you can do between now and December 20th.

3. This is basic–eat right, sleep right, and get some exercise in so that you can function. I’ve said it before–get a flu shot or step up the various routines to stay healthy. One of the best defense is hand washing. Yes, I said it and I’ve said this before on my blog.

4. Check in with your Teaching Assistant(s) and Professors! I wish I could say that I get lonely during my office hours, but I don’t. I have a bench out side my office and during my office hours the bench is kept warm. I have to say that I truly appreciate that my office hours are busy. This means that students are checking in with me to chat about assignments, ask for advice, chat about their schedules, help them in other ways, and overall serve as a mentor or coach to them.

5. Related to the above point–check in with the advising team in your department and Academic Advising.

6. This is really basic, but I have to repeat it: read your syllabus. Please read your syllabi! And, if you haven’t read it, please don’t ever say that to your Teaching Assistant or Professor. We really don’t like hearing that.

Enough! Check in–don’t check out!

Another Letter to a First Year Student

Well, we are two months into a new term and it’s worth sharing this again.

I might be posting this one month too early, but it’s on my mind. And, I can always revise and post again, right? Here I offer a second installment. The previous one was really focused more so on academics and having a well-rounded first term or year at university. This installment is based merely on my opinion and experience as both an undergrad advisor and as someone who has taught first year students for my entire career.

  • If you live in the dorms try to schedule your study time at a time when you’re at your best. Chances are you are juggling a handful of classes, work, relationships, stress, and more. You need to manage your time well and I suggest that you schedule study time. This requires that you keep a schedule! Add all the assignment due dates to the schedule, and take advantage of the UVIC Library’s Assignment Calculator, and those suggested due dates in your calendar.
  • Find out where the gym is on campus. If you haven’t been there, go take a tour, and have a workout there. Get comfortable there because you’re going to need to stay healthy during the term and this includes eating right, sleeping, and exercising.
  • Find out where Health Services/Campus Clinic is on campus, and go by and check when you can get a flu shot. If you don’t believe in flu shots, then make sure you wash your hands lots, and cough/sneeze into your arm. This is so obvious that it pains me to remind people, but seeing so many leave the bathroom without washing their hands–especially during flu season makes me share this.
  • Find out where Campus Counseling office is and find out what services and workshops they offer for student success. It could end up that the Learning Center or Library offers workshops related to time management, skill-building, and more. At the campus where I work the Counseling Services office offers some great workshops and counseling sessions.
  • Before the term begins, walk around campus to get familiarized with the different buildings, and check out your classrooms, so that you don’t get lost during the first week of classes. Check out other parts of campus for good study nooks and crannies!
  • Google your instructors or at the very least look them up on the university website so that you know what they look like. Some of you might not care to do this, but others will want to make sure that they’re in the right class. You will also get familiar with what your instructor teaches and researches. This particular suggestion might be more appropriate for the transfer student, who is looking for a mentor. I’ll add to this one–go see your professor during her/his office hours.
  • Check out the student union and the different clubs on campus. You should seriously look at getting involved on campus. The degree of this involvement will vary among the students, but you really should get involved in a club or two. This will allow you a way to meet other people.
  • Your first year you are really going to take an array of courses and meet the general education requirements for your undergraduate degree. But, you really should refer to the university guidelines or department requirements for the department that you think that you will pursue your major in. Take a course or three in this area, so that you can make sure that you want to pursue this degree.

I will continue these letters to a first year student. The next one will most likely focus with peer mentoring. I truly hope that some of this is helpful! If you’re a student, bookmark this and save it. If you work with college students, please add more. I’m sure I missed something in this second installment.

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is dedicated to thinking about what you do well and life planning. This is really for all of us, but I’m thinking of my college students who are on “break” working or taking Summer courses. It gets so easy to think about what needs to be done or what you haven’t scratched off on the “to do” list.During my office hours, I’ve also noticed a real apprehension with what is next and lots of self-doubt. So, let’s think about what you do well.

1. Get out a piece of paper. Oh, wait, open a new document or text yourself…

2. What do you do well? What are you known for among your friends or family?

3. The last time you were complimented–what was it for?

4. What do you want to known for at work or home? Remember to take care of yourself.

5. Think about your positive traits and what you have to give the world.

Now, think about what is next for you. You do not have to solve everything today, but just think about what is next. And, make this list realistic. Then, go chat with other mentors/coaches in your life and ask them for any guidance they might have as you embark on the next chapter in our life.