Establishing and Supporting a Faculty Mentoring Program

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A faculty mentor program can help ensure every new hire has a guide, friend, confidante, and role model

For many new hires, tenure-track or not, there isn’t a road map for navigating that challenging first year of teaching. A faculty mentor program can help ensure every new hire has a guide, friend, confidante, and role model. The end result of such a program should be a more confident and effective colleague who is successfully retained by the institution and who provides effective teaching to students.

Philosophy and organization

It’s not uncommon for new hires find a friendly colleague down the hall and start asking questions. However, leaving the mentor process up to chance may not have the desired results. Depending on the size of the institution, an effective faculty mentoring program can start at the campus, college, or department level. This first step to determine needs and define the guiding philosophy. Questions to start the process include:

  1. Is the mentor program to be non-evaluative, with confidentiality between the mentor and new hire?
  2. Who will mentor new hires and how will they be selected, trained, and paired with new hires?
  3. Is the work of the mentors a service, or a duty with compensation?
  4. How long should a mentor pairing be in place? First year or beyond?
  5. What if a pairing doesn’t work out? Which administrator serves as the “escape valve” for a change of mentor?
  6. How will the program be assessed for its value?
  7. How much accountability, if any, does the mentor have with regard to the retention of the new hire?

Mentor selection

Who makes a good mentor? The skill set for teaching in higher education and the skills for guiding someone else’s success are two separate sets. An effective mentor needs to build trust with the new hire/mentee to establish a working relationship. Strong interpersonal communication skills are needed to lead productive conversations. The mentor needs to know campus policies and procedures about re-employment, tenure, and promotion. A strong mentor should also know effective teaching strategies and be willing to have the new hire observe in his/her classroom. 

To identify possible mentors, the program director extends an invitation for volunteers, or contacts individuals in a small departmental setting. Consider a few questions to accompany the invitation or conversation. Questions might include:

  1. Why are you interested in mentoring a new hire?
  2. What is one piece of advice you would give a new hire if paired as a mentor?
  3. Who helped you the most as a new hire and how were you helped?
  4. What do you think you will gain from the mentoring experience?

A brief introduction about the training and scope of the program will assist experienced faculty members with the decision to mentor. What will be the perks for mentoring? There may be some additional professional development offered or an honoraria. At least offer some lunches and coffee! An explanation of the time involved is often a first question asked by prospective mentors before they volunteer, so outlining time frames in the initial information or conversation is important.

Mentor orientation and training

Once mentors are identified, they do need training or orientation. An orientation session should include the roles and responsibilities of the mentors, clarification of the philosophy of the program, where to turn if there is an issue, and some discussions or role-plays about possible scenarios. For example: 

  1. The new hire arrives late to class or skips office hours. What should the mentor do?
  2. The new hire is doing fantastic work. The concern is that he/she is doing too much and may burn out quickly. How should the mentor advise?
  3. The new hire’s teaching is going very well, but he/she has not started a research agenda or participated in any committee work. How should the mentor intervene?

Because observing another person’s teaching can be valuable for providing feedback for improvement, orientation also should include training on how to be a collegial and effective observer. When new hires invite their mentors to observe a class, there should be a conversation about the instructor’s goals for the class and what he/she wants the mentor to watch (number of questions asked, clarity of a presentation, etc.). The mentor attends the class, taking verbatim notes or videotaping the class session. At a later date, in private, the two discuss the class. A good starting question from the mentor is, “How do you think the class went?” or “Was today typical for this group?” Then, the two can look at the notes or video together. This type of observation is intended to be non-threatening throughout the three steps of a pre-conference, an observation, and a post-conference.  

Mentor roles and responsibilities

Regardless of the size of the department or institution, a mentor has a variety of roles and responsibilities. From sharing where to find people, offices, and resources on campus to recommending professional readings and conferences, a mentor serves a valuable guide for acclimating new hires to campus life.  However, a mentor shouldn’t overshare, engage in office politics, or gossip about colleagues or administrators.

Above all, a mentor can guide the new hire to develop effective teaching strategies. If a new hire arrives on campus from the business world, the mentor may need to share the basics of lesson planning, course objectives, syllabus preparation, and assessments. A newly minted PhD who served as a researcher throughout their studies may need the same help, although they’ll likely have some familiarity with how things work in higher education. A key for the success of the mentor pairing is for the experienced faculty member to find out the teaching strengths of the new colleague and to capitalize on them. As with any relationship, it is always best to look at the new person’s strengths and not deficits.

Assessment and grading merit discussion with the new hire as well. So many end-of-semester conflicts can be avoided by proactive planning of fair grading practices. People hired to teach in higher education have generally been successful, and possibly wildly successful at being college students. When given a schedule that includes general education courses at the freshman level, a new PhD may not realize that many students don’t have the academic background for college work or the interest in the discipline. Without some coaching about students’ academic levels and effective teaching strategies, a new hire may resort to teaching as he/she was taught, and while the new professor learned that way, today’s students may not.

Stress seems inevitable for those working in higher education, and doubly so for the new hires. A mentor can share time- and stress-management techniques. Going for a walk or inviting the mentee to join a casual faculty sports team can model positive stress relief. Know the mentee well before deciding if lunch out or a cocktail hour is the best approach for releasing stress and building camaraderie.

Program assessment

A successful faculty mentoring program has a director who coordinates all steps of the mentoring process, from mentor selection to program assessment. How does the director know the efforts of mentoring are successful? How do the mentor and new hire feel success? Obtaining feedback is the key to assessing the work of all involved. Short surveys can provide insight into the mentoring process while still keeping confidentiality. Consider asking mentors:

  1. During this semester, I estimate that I have worked with my mentee _________ hours per week/per month.
  2. The most productive things that my new colleague and I have done were: (please list)
  3. I felt prepared to mentor after orientation because… (Or, I didn’t feel prepared to mentor because…)
  4. My recommendations for the next team of mentors is…

New hires also should be asked for their feedback. Questions include: 

  1. My mentor was most helpful when…
  2. My mentor and I worked together on the following:
  3. My suggestion for next year’s new hires and mentors would be…
  4. All new hires here need more support regarding the topics of …

Some quantitative data on the retention of new hires after the implementation of a faculty mentor program can provide support for its continuation. Over a longer period of time, data on the tenure and promotion of mentored faculty can be garnered.

Final thoughts

Just how long does mentoring need to take place? The first year? Until tenure is earned? Throughout all stages of a career? (One might argue that we need a mentor to help us decide when and how to retire!) Each institution can formulate its parameters for the formal mentoring pair to work together (a year or two), and then the new hire should be able to find his/her way.

All of us should be collegial, supporting new hires and guiding them to success, but as much as new hires learn from mentors, those who serve as mentors learn plenty in return. The experience may lead the mentor to an administrative position, providing them with insights for smoothing a transition to department chair or dean. Establishing and supporting a faculty mentor program has many benefits. A new hire who feels supported can have a better sense of calm and well-being, leading to stronger job performance. Of course, the primary reason to provide support to all faculty is so that they may provide excellent teaching and support to their students.

Mary C. Clement is a professor of teacher education at Berry College in Rome, Ga. She is the author of First Time in the College Classroom (2010, Rowman and Littlefield) and The Mentor Program Kit (2011, Educational Research Service/Editorial Projects in Education).