On Mentorship

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The specific principles which I see as applicable to mentorship are as follows:

    • Love is the foundation to all healthy human relationships. The mentoring relationship is first and foremost a human relationship, and will function best if it is a relationship between whole persons built on love and friendship.
    • Effective teaching in that context begins, not with the mentor talking, but listening. There are at least three reasons for this:
      • Listening is valuable in and of itself.
      • When a person is listened to, it helps him to trust and open up. This will help the teacher to gain a very important trust in instructing the student.
      • It will give the mentor a basis to connect with the student, and tailor messages to him.
    • Beauty is forged in the eye of the beholder. A willing student can be powerfully shaped by a mentor who looks at him and sees him, not merely as he is, but as he will become.
    • Effective mentoring is not only teaching of one specific area, but first and foremost a teaching about life. It is teaching of life and wisdom in such a way as to usually take the form of a kind of specific lesson.
    • The mentor should approach the relationship as being for the student's benefit, and only incidentally for his own. He should be willing to do things that are difficult for him, and he should be happy for the student's success — even (especially) when the student does better than him, or catches him in error.
    • The mentor should not only be concerned with imparting knowledge, but more importantly concerned with helping the student to think and use knowledge effectively.
    • The mentor should not be trying to clone himself or make the student an extension of himself. He should try to help the student be the person God created him to be, not who the mentor wants to be or in fantasy would selfishly like him to be.
    • The student should not be passive, regarding the mentorship as something which is done to him. He should regard it as a resource to take advantage of in his efforts to actively learn. He should take responsibility on himself for his own progress. He should concentrate on actively listening, and asking intelligent questions. The student should be like Prometheus, looking for every opportunity to steal knowledge from his teacher.
    • Both parties should work hard — not asking "Can this work?", but "How will we make this work?" Persistent in making things work, the mentor should none the less vary his methods of explanation, like water flowing down a hill — it will get around obstacles, and it does so by flowing around and through them, which is in turn accomplished by adapting its shape to whatever there is, and thereby slipping around obstacles that would stop a rolling rock.

[N.B. The following segment refers to the following joke/story, recounted in Reader's Digest:

A professor believed that his students were mindlessly copying too much of his lectures instead of thinking and then writing down key points. One day in class, he interrupted his lecture and said, "Stop. I want you to put down your pens and pencils and listen to me. You are not here to transcribe my lectures. You are here to think first and foremost, and only then to write down the essence of what I am saying. You don't have to write down every word I say verbatim. Now, any questions?"

One student raised her hand. "Yes?" "How do you spell 'verbatim'?"]

  • A rare but important part of teaching is shattering limits on the way a person is thinking ("How do you spell 'verbatim'?"). This should never be done lightly or as a first approach, nor should it be done carelessly or insensitively. It needs to be done with the utmost care, and is probably very difficult to do well. That stated, a mentor does a student no service by helping him to write down an hour's worth of requests to stop writing and start thinking.
  • Metacognitive thought is important both for mentor and apprentice. The mentor should be thinking about both his own thought and the student's, and when the student isn't hearing what the mentor is saying, the mentor should ask, "How am I thinking? How is he thinking? Why are we not connecting?" — but he should primarily be concerned for the student's thought. The student should be thinking about both people's thought as well — the mentor's, because it is an example of how an expert thinks, and his own, because if he understands how he is thinking he will be better prepared to transcend his current limits. Both of them should expect the other to periodically have an alien insight to share that won't fit in their present mindsets.
  • The mentor should be emotionally intelligent, and be sensitive to the emotions and emotional needs of the student. If the student is not in the right emotional state, learning will be almost impossible. We are not just pure, emotionless minds, and we can be far more effective if we care for emotions and use them then if we act as if emotions were not a serious part of us. If either person is not able to give full attention, a meeting should be either shortened or postponed.
  • The mentor, precisely because he is a unique leader, should take the attitude of a servant to the student, just as Jesus washed his disciples' feet.
  • The mentor should realize that the lesson he is teaching is first, who he is; second, what he does; third, what he says. The mentor should model an excitement and interest in the material, and focus less on what to think than how to think. He should also model before the student effective human relationships with other people.
  • In the beginning especially, the mentor should not deluge the apprentice with information. Assimilating new and foreign information — particularly when you don't have a framework to put things into — is hard, and overloading a student prevents him from learning anything. A mentor should begin by asking questions of the student, trying to understand him better, and only slowly ease into talking about philosophical frameworks and then details of the subject area of the mentoring.
  • The mentor and eventually the student should know not only their cognitive strengths, but at least as importantly their cognitive weaknesses — both those that are part of being human, and those that are specific to a person. Code Complete (referenced below) says that there is a tenfold productivity difference made when programmers use principles and techniques grounded in a respect for cognitive weaknesses.
  • The mentor should be an expert in his field, and should also be continuing to learn and do research. Graduation is not the end of learning, but a beginning of a new kind of learning.
  • The mentor should help the student to put the day's lessons into practice. The student should be asking the question, "How can I apply this? How can I practice it?" Homework will help the student to learn, although perhaps shouldn't be started until the mentor has earned the student's trust and the student is motivated to use homework assignments to squeeze every last benefit out of time with the mentor.
  • The student should be safe and free to make mistakes, for a couple of reasons. First, if he isn't making at least some mistakes, he probably isn't being challenged enough or learning enough new material. Second, a mistake is a tremendous educational opportunity. It provides a unique insight into the student's thought, and therefore should be treasured, grasped, analyzed.
  • There is no quick fix. The most effective (and, for that matter, even the fastest) way to get results is to work slowly, patiently, unhurriedly towards achieving mastery. There is often a tradeoff between optimizing for short term and long term effectiveness; patiently working for long term payoffs will ultimately produce the highest dividends.

I will also mention several books which provide a backdrop to my comments, three that I would strongly reccommend and four that I would suggest:

Strongly Reccommended:

  • The Bible. That has provided the theological and philosophical grounding to my thought as a whole; it gives the structure/meta-structure which I fit the other points into. (This is the most important, but it is not necessary to read cover to cover before beginning anything. Fifteen or thirty minutes a day will add up to a lot if continued for a couple years.) Particularly relevant passages that come to mind are Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), I Cor. 13 (the hymn to love), much of the Johannine writings (esp. John 13-17), and certain areas of Proverbs.
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. A classic.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People. Although much of the influence it deals with is persuasive in character, the same principles apply to the kind of influence necessary to effectively mentor.


  • Listening, A Practical Approach. Probably one among many books on listening, this deals with an extremely valuable and neglected area of communication.
  • Emotional Intelligence. We are not pure minds, and we can cripple ourselves terribly if we do not handle our emotions effectively. If we do, they will help us greatly.
  • Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction. In computer science, most of the programming materials talk about how to effectively use computers, taking advantage of their strengths and dealing with their weaknesses, to get a computer to do something. This book talks about how to effectively use your mind, taking advantage of its strengths and dealing with its weaknesses, to get a computer to do something. The kind of thinking involved is applicable far beyond computer science.
  • Gandhi's writings. I could mention specific chapters in what I've read, but I will say that there is a general theme of spiritual force instead of physical force, and the spiritual force which he advocates (which helped him to turn bitter enemies into warm friends) has tremendous relevance to mentorship. In Autobiographical Reflections, in a chapter entitled "Ahimse or the way of nonviolence", he comments that when a parent slaps a child, what affects the child is not so much the sting of the slap, as the offended love which lies behind that slap.