This content originally appeared on APUEdge.com.
Teachers are always seeking better ways to connect with their students, especially in the online classroom. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the value of mentoring students and why it can be helpful to think of students as customers. Learn how forming a mentoring relationship can help teachers connect better with students, improve student learning, and also bring greater satisfaction to the teacher.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
In today’s episode we’re going to look at mentoring online students in higher education. This is a hot topic right now because everyone wants to connect better with their students. And here on the Online Teaching Lounge, connecting with our students and working with them much better than we have in the past is one of our primary objectives.
At the university where I teach and work, we have a focus on student success, and we want to have students-first programs. So it makes sense that we would want to also include a mentoring approach. This is something some of my faculty have explored, and other leaders across the institution. So I’m going to share some thoughts with you today about mentoring online students.
Choosing to be a Leader
As an instructor or an online educator, you may not be in a leadership role at your institution. But you can lead from any seat that you’re in. As a leader in the classroom, you can try things out that may work for you, and share them with colleagues. You might be able to get an IRB request and do a little research on what you find, and share it with the bigger community as well.
And of course, there’s the practitioner report. You can just notice what’s going on and prepare a practical presentation to share with others, or write up an article on that. There are so many ways you can have an experience with mentoring and share it with other people.
When we think about ourselves as online educators, perhaps we get into some routines or patterns that don’t bring us as much satisfaction and joy as they once did. Mentoring our students can be something that freshens that up and helps us connect much more deeply with the people we’re teaching.
There’s a story in a book called “Lead From Any Seat” by Andrei Anca, and in this book, he shares a story called The Parable of the Coffee Bean, and he has an unknown author listed there. But the story is like this. And I’m going to read it directly from the book, “Lead From Any Seat.”
“A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were hard for her. She didn’t know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed that when one problem was solved, a new one arose.
Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water. And in the first pot she placed carrots. In the second one, she placed eggs. And in the last pot, she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil without saying a word.
In about 20 minutes. She turned off the burners. She took the carrots out of the water and placed them in a bowl. She then pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. She then ladled the coffee into a bowl. Turning to her daughter. She asked, ‘Tell me what you see.’ ‘Carrots, eggs and coffee,’ the daughter replied.
The mother, brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noticed that they were softened. She then asked her to take an egg and break it. After peeling off the soft shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, she asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled and she tasted the rich aroma.
The daughter then asked, ‘What’s the point mother?’ Her mother explained that with each of these objects, they had all faced the same adversity, the boiling water, but each of them reacted differently.
The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. After being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior. But after being exposed to the boiling water, the inside became hardened.
The ground coffee beans however, they were unique. After they were placed in the boiling water, they had changed the water. ‘Which are you?’ she asked the daughter. When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”
Now let’s take this to our online teaching. Each of us enters the profession of teaching as educators, and we have goals and we have things we’d like to accomplish there. Things happen, jobs are difficult. We can’t reach some of our students. We have success with others. Many things occur during our teaching career. And as we’re teaching, we transform in one of these three ways.
Just as we transform in one of these three ways, our students also approach their experience with us in either an approachable manner, soft and ready to be taught. A resistant manner, perhaps they don’t want to take the course and they’re taking it because it’s a required class. Or maybe they come in with mixed feelings. And they can have an impact on others as well.
Through mentoring, we can have that difference, like the ground coffee beans.
Changing Your Perspective
When we think about students, an interesting thing is that many of us think about them as these people that need to be taught, need to be molded, need to learn the ropes in some way, either in the subject matter or in the field.
Either way, it would be an interesting flip to see the student instead as a customer. If we were a business in education, instead of looking at ourselves as simply an educational entity, thinking about your student as your customer gives you a whole different perspective on the way you approach the people who come to learn from you. A student wants to learn, of course, but a customer wants value from what they’re getting.
If we were to make an impact on our students that’s much more significant than simply giving feedback and conversation in the online classroom, we can think about our students in a way that we see them quite differently.
Again, in the book, “Lead From Any Seat,” the author tells us that the first step in making an impact is to change the way we think about other people. One way we can think about our students as customers will be to see through their experience. We need to understand what they need, what they really want in life and in their education.
Essentially, the idea is if we’re going to be successful mentoring students and really helping them in what they’re learning, we need to see their point of view. We need to be able to understand their perspective, and we also need to see through their eyes. This is sometimes called an outward mindset from others. It could be called many things. It could be taking on a new perspective. It could be servant leadership.
But either way, when we take the focus off ourselves, our workload, and our approach to teaching, and we put the focus instead on the person we’re teaching, and seeing through their experience and their eyes, we have a totally different experience working with them in our course.
Understanding the Value of Mentoring
You might be asking yourself at this point, what is mentoring? What is that in higher education? And what is that in online education? I can’t answer all of those questions in today’s brief podcast, but I will start with the idea that mentoring is about giving a relationship to someone else, connecting with them, and working with them for their own development. This could be personal development, professional development, growth in a specific area.
Through the mentoring relationship, we connect with other people and we share our expertise. We might provide guidance and examples about how they can repeat our success, or success of others in the field.
Or more generally, it could be about academic success. What does it take, for example, to be a great student? If we think about the things our students come into our classroom wanting to know specifically from us, this can turn us towards a mentoring approach. It can help us think a lot more about what kind of mentoring we would give our students.
Now, even if there is not a formal mentoring program in place, we can always take a mentoring approach to the way we teach our courses. For example, in the comments we might use in a discussion, we can mentor students by talking through the ideas with them, giving critical questions to help them think more deeply about how to apply these concepts in real life. And we can ask them about how they might use the ideas in their professional world, now and in the future.
If we’re mentoring them in a subject matter where they’re going to major in it, like, for example, if you’re a communication faculty member and you’re teaching students majoring in communication who intend to go into that field, you might bring in relevant career examples. Scenarios and situations to prompt their deeper thinking about that. And then you can ask students how that might apply to what they’re seeking to obtain in the future.
Group mentoring is also possible if you have live calls or group discussions. You might try some kind of group approach to mentoring where you share different scenarios about the professional world, and have students chat with you and toss around the ideas about how they might prepare, or how they could apply the concepts you’ve shared.
Whether you’re mentoring someone in their academic skills or the academic ability to survive the online class, generally, or perhaps you’re mentoring them in becoming someone who moves into that professional area, students really need a sense of their identity. And by the word identity, I mean they need to be able to see themselves as a scholar or student in the academic space.
Students also need to be able to imagine themselves in that career when they’re finished with their degree. Something difficult for a lot of people who go into a new field is feeling like they are legitimate or prepared in that field.
For example, there have been a lot of studies done about the field of education. And people who major in something to become a teacher later often struggle seeing themselves as an educator. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that can happen for folks when they start teaching for the first time.
And just an extension of that, I remember my first year as a teacher, 25 years ago, when I walked into that classroom and I didn’t have any faculty or supervising teachers with me. I was extremely nervous every day. Sometimes I called my mentor teacher that had done work with me the previous year, and I asked for guidance and feedback. I looked for some kind of insight to help me feel more like the official educator that I wanted to be.
Things we can say and do with our students can help them imagine themselves in that profession, and create a professional identity for themselves in their minds, and in reality, as well.
As we wrap up this brief discussion about mentoring, I’d like to encourage you to look at your students and find out what they really want from their experience with you. Even if they post in a discussion during week one what they’d like to get out of the class, many times these statements are brief or even superficial.
As you start to see them engage and think about who they really are, where they’re coming from, and what their experience is with the subject matter, you might be able to see beyond those comments into a greater depth of who those students would like to be in the future.
And as you see through their eyes, you might have some insights about small things you can do to connect with them through a mentoring style and a mentoring approach, until you’re able to give a little bit more in the future where you might create some ideas around some kind of more formal mentoring experience with your students.
You can also give them some feedback when they give you assignments, that is more focused on who they’re becoming in that academic area, and more mentoring-focused as well. And in the long term, something might occur to you that you can do to give a little bit more mentoring to your students, again, even if there is no formal program.
There were some faculty that I worked with, and they took a mentoring approach to a course. And we found that the brief and small changes they made actually had these students re-enroll in courses at a higher rate, just because the faculty took a unique approach or approached it through a mentoring lens.
When you approach your teaching as a mentor and not just as a teacher, you’re going to find a little bit of a difference in your results as well. I encourage you to think about this in your online teaching this coming week, and I wish you all the best in your teaching.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.