In an e-mail in May, Linda told Karen: “Just got my Spring teaching evals and can’t wait to review them with you!... Let’s set up a time as soon as possible!” This was a quantum leap in tone from their initial meetings at the beginning of the school year, which had begun with tears of frustration and confusion from Linda.
This article describes a mentoring relationship between a nurse educator (Linda) with many years of successful practice as an obstetric nurse but no college teaching experience, and a teacher educator (Karen) with no nursing experience but 20 years of professional practice as a teacher and evaluator of classrooms. It adds to the growing body of literature on the efficacy of mentoring new faculty by opening up the specific activities involved in successful mentoring, illuminating the advantages of cultivating mentoring relationships among academic departments rather than within them, and offering a virtually free strategy for improving the quality of college teaching in institutions that cannot support a stand-alone Center for Teaching Excellence.
Longtime readers of the Journal of Nursing Education will recognize the frequency with which contributors cite the lack of pedagogical training future nurse educators typically receive in their advanced study beyond possibly serving as preceptors (Brown, Kirkpatrick, Mangum, & Avery, 2008; Cangelosi, 2004; Kavoosi, Elman & Mauch, 1995; Smith & Zsohar, 2007). This is despite the reality that classroom teaching, along with research and maintaining clinical competency, will comprise a lion’s share of their career in nursing education.
Snelson et al. (2002) documented the substantial intellectual and personal adaptations successful nurses and preceptors have to make in their transition into faculty roles, and the necessity of cultivating an environment undergirded by a caring theoretical perspective that attends to helping new faculty acquire teaching skills. Journal articles touting the benefits of collegial mentoring provide comprehensive lists of the qualities of effective mentors and salient potential outcomes to probe in the mentoring relationship (Andrusyszyn, 1990; Berk, Berg, Mortimer, Walton-Moss, & Yeo, 2005; Martsolf et al., 1999; Snelson et al., 2002).
Respect, care, trust, and clarity of communication are consistently cited in the literature as crucial mentoring skills (Andrusyszyn, 1990; Kavoosi et al., 1995; Martsolf et al., 1999). Exhortations abound for higher education faculty of all disciplines to open their classroom doors and invite in a collegial mentor when necessary, ending what can be a corrosive sense of “pedagogical solitude” (Shulman, 1993, p. 6). However, we rarely get a glimpse of such a relationship in practice.
Contributions Within a Context
This article is such a look; unpacking the strategies for making mentorship effective from the perspectives of both the mentee and the mentor rather than simply listing them. A key contribution of this piece is the authors’ contention that neophyte nurse educators would do well to make solid connections with faculty from the department, school, or college of education likely to be on their campus to improve their pedagogy because education faculty study, practice, and assess pedagogy for a living. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the power differential that exists between novice and experienced faculty in the same department has the potential to influence the interactions in a putative mentoring relationship (Schrodt, Cawyer, Stringer, & Sanders, 2003); when the mentor and mentee are in different departments, this threat is diminished.
The authors’ university, while comprehensive, is small (approximately 2,700 undergraduate and 600 graduate students). It shares with many other small colleges and universities the fact that, although high-quality teaching is treasured, rewarded, and expected of all faculty members, it simply cannot maintain a separate dedicated Center for Teaching Excellence likely to be found on larger campuses to support pedagogical improvement and innovation. Such centers are admirably equipped to provide systematic assistance to new and mid-career faculty in the form of a pedagogical library, regular workshops and in-service presentations, seminars, and online services (Bascia & Hargreaves, 2000; Boyer, 1990).
Although the staff of such centers would likely, even justifiably, contend that they are stretched thin in both financial and human resources, their presence on a campus provides a tangible support system that smaller institutions find enviable. Therefore, a contribution of this piece is to demonstrate how some of the structures in a Center for Teaching Excellence, such as a systematic approach to mentoring and well-defined tools for new teachers to use in developing and honing their craft, can be replicated in the context of an institution where a stand-alone teaching improvement endeavor is not viable. It is even possible that the more organic nature of the mentoring relationship presented here, rooted in a voluntary, no-cost faculty relationship with a high buy-in and virtually no power differential, may be more sustainable over time as colleges and universities confront ever-shrinking budgets (Snelson et al., 2002).
The mentoring literature is unambiguous about the foundations of a productive relationship between mentor and mentee: trust is at the heart of the pair’s interactions, built by ongoing evidence of caring, relevant, honest feedback and clear communication (Chester & Espelin, 2003; Snelson et al., 2002; Thorpe & Kalischuk, 2003). Both authors of this article assert that they were able to enact these pillars over the course of a 2-year project: ensuring that Linda (the mentee and second author) developed the pedagogical skills necessary to thrive in her new role as a nurse educator. What follows is a description of how the authors approached that project and developed a productive, healthy mentoring relationship, turning Linda from a frustrated neophyte teacher into a satisfied and effective one.
The institution at which Karen (first author) and Linda work was in the midst of fledgling efforts to take better advantage of “home-grown experts” on campus to share their expertise in ways that are less like “drive-bys” than is the bringing in of nationally known speakers who deliver the truth and then must catch the next plane out. It is a low-cost alternative to faculty development and helps ensure meaningful follow-up to the initiatives generated by colleagues one must face the next day.
Karen, an education professor, had completed some well-received in-service work with the entire nursing faculty at their request, and thus had some credibility already established as an authority on pedagogy, course, and assessment design. After a couple of semesters of troubling teaching evaluations indicating that Linda was not meeting the needs of all her students in the series of required courses she taught (Human Development, Maternity Nursing), the Dean of the School of Nursing suggested Karen as a potential mentor for Linda. Although Linda tended to receive high scores for knowledge of her subject matter (averaging 3.5 on the 4-point Likert-type scale used by the School of Nursing), students were less satisfied with her mode of delivery, which they tended to find somewhat dry.
Linda was told by her Dean to “fix the problem, now” as a condition of future employment; the current evaluations would not serve her well when she was eligible for tenure. After years as a successful nurse, Linda was used to feeling competent and confident, readily able to acquire and refine new skills and knowledge as they became available. This new circumstance came as a blow. It was compounded by the strain of being a doctoral student with its concomitant course and research demands, and her very posture spoke defeat when she literally trudged into Karen’s office for the first meeting.
The Mechanics of Mentoring
Creating an ethos of caring was critical to their progress, and the authors recommend that mentors be deliberate about establishing a warm, safe environment. What worked for them was a mutual pledge of confidentiality—whatever was said in the context of the mentoring relationship stayed there. Herbal tea, Kleenex, and M&Ms were always plentiful. Meeting outside the School of Nursing building, in the Education building and occasionally off-campus, provided necessary distance and a literal change of perspective.
Karen’s consciously projecting the role of professional cheerleader and trustworthy second pair of eyes in sorting through course evaluations, visiting Linda’s classroom consistently, and committing to a series of focused dialogues on Linda’s progress are the elements that proved integral to the success of this mentoring partnership.
As part of the authors’ clear communication, they started by operationalizing the generic command to “fix the problem, now” into three short-term, measurable targets: interpret student course evaluations carefully to distinguish between ad hominum attacks and genuinely helpful criticisms; choose two new strategies to implement into the next round of courses and monitor those closely and relatively exclusively; and identify what Linda was already doing effectively so that she could begin the new term convinced she had some teaching strengths. The latter was crucial, as Linda’s confidence had been shredded and any mentor would have been remiss in not helping her recognize her considerable innate skills.
A helpful resource for this process is Eisner’s (1997) notion of “educational connoisseurship,” which rejects the idea that criticism, even the constructive kind, is principally about finding fault. Rather, Eisner (1997) contended that the role of any critic, whether discussing wine, film, or education, is to open up a practice to enable a person to see and understand what might not be readily apparent to one mired in the midst of the phenomenon. In this case, although perhaps tempting to perseverate about some low scores, it was crucial for Linda’s long-term healing and efficacy to be pressed by her mentor to acknowledge her uniformly high scores on depth and breadth of content knowledge, including her ability and willingness to answer students’ questions.
From behind their lenses as educational connoisseurs, the authors could find germane parallels between some of the students’ comments about needless repetition and Linda’s own experience as a doctoral student facing similar challenges as a learner herself. This created a permeable membrane between Linda’s two worlds where ideas and skills could interact, streamlining her work in helpful ways as insights gained as a teacher informed her efforts to be an efficient and productive doctoral student and vice versa.
As the authors scoured the evaluations looking for common themes, Linda became aware that they were essentially engaging in qualitative research, specifically the constant comparative method of analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Suddenly, her doctoral research courses started serving an authentic purpose, something that may not have been as quick to occur if she did not delve bravely and systematically into the mentoring sessions.
Combining students’ comments with her own learning in graduate school, Linda was able to select two instructional strategies (simulations and jigsaw reading) on which she would focus for the upcoming term. The authors’ discussions and Karen’s observations and feedback would focus only on those two strategies as Linda sought to widen her repertoire beyond those she had acquired in her life as a student. Here, the authors drew on the work of Lortie (2002), who has long lamented that, by and large, teachers teach as they were taught; it is difficult to conceive new possibilities if they have not been part of one’s lived experiences.
Choosing to focus on two observable innovations that were derived from student evaluations proved tremendously freeing for both of the authors. Karen could assure Linda that the strategies she had chosen (simulations and jigsaw reading) were research-based techniques with many flexible applications. In addition, Karen now knew precisely what to look for when observing Linda’s class and tailor her written and oral feedback to the efficacy of those two strategies. For her part, Linda could focus on honing two maximally flexible techniques to near perfection. As a mentor, Karen could point out that once perfected, those strategies would be a permanent part of Linda’s pedagogical repertoire, so she could choose another strategy or two as targets the following term.
Linda could also extract formative assessments from her students regarding their progress in learning the material using these specific techniques. She found that asking students to link their feedback directly to how the specific pedagogical techniques she was using actually affected their ongoing learning precluded unhelpful personal comments.
Finally, in a nursing school culture justifiably committed to evidence-based decisions—about patient care and nursing innovations, for instance—the authors could take that same stance as they observed and discussed Linda’s blossoming teaching. That is, when Linda stepped back to observe students engaged in classroom activities or read student papers and examinations (and ultimately when she read their course evaluations), she could couch her perceptions and decisions in terms of the evidence of the impact her instruction had on student learning. This was a professional habit that she has continued to inculcate in her students and in her own self-evaluations at the end of each academic year.
Time, of course, is an important consideration in a mentoring relationship. Both members must privilege their time together as much as they would any other professional obligation. The authors found that scheduling an observation of Linda’s class every other week for the first semester, with in-person debriefings once per month and weekly e-mail updates in between, were doable and necessary to sustain forward momentum. After that first semester, the frequency decreased to one substantial observation and personal interaction per month, with e-mail updates as needed.
The authors noted earlier that they found their mentoring relationship to be especially fruitful because the mentor was a member of the university’s education faculty. There are at least two reasons for their assertion. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that where matters of pedagogy are concerned, from course design through summative assessment, education faculty are the resident experts on any campus. However, this is not to suggest that there are not gifted teachers in every field, including nursing. Linda’s colleagues are deft, skilled teachers who provide excellent mentoring on content-specific strategies and navigating promotion and tenure practices in the department; the authors would never suggest that new nursing faculty ignore the considerable potential of the people in their own units. However, education faculty are immersed daily in the literature and practice of figuring out how people learn and how to engineer classrooms so that more students learn more material more effectively.
Frequently in the authors’ conversations, Linda would comment in despair that things that seemed so obvious to Karen were coming more slowly to her. Karen could point out that if Linda were to watch her tend to nursing mothers or assist with an appendectomy, skills that Linda has cultivated to an automatic level and would not have to consciously think about to do well, Karen’s nursing skills would be gravely absent.
Perhaps because most teachers in higher education have at least 20 years of passive educational apprenticeships under our belts as students before we ever take on our first teaching assignment, we fall into the mistaken assumption that good teaching is easy. As with any complex endeavor, good teaching must be systematically coaxed, coached, unpacked, and mentored.
Nurse educators interested in refining their pedagogy might find it productive to approach education faculty for guidance. Karen can assure readers that most education professors feel a bit like the Maytag repairman from the old commercial—sitting alone in their offices across campus, hoping to be of service. With their shared commitment to teaching students in the classroom and supervising their clinical work in hospitals and K-12 classrooms, education and nursing faculty have unique workloads on their campuses and are likely to find empathetic, sympathetic ears and hearts in one another.
A second important reason we have found that non-nursing faculty members can be effective mentors is that being in different units on campus creates some healthy distance. Karen could give pointed and substantial feedback to Linda because she would not be called on through the normal channels of Rank and Tenure Committee or other administrative processes to write a formal evaluation of Linda’s work, which is typically handled within the School of Nursing, as it should be. The authors also hasten to note that nursing faculty should engage in peer review of one another’s teaching because they are in a position to judge the veracity and accuracy of the nursing content professed by a nurse educator. But judging levels of student engagement, the ability of students to apply new material, and simply “taking the temperature” of a group of learners are tasks well-suited to education professionals.
As Linda prepares her portfolio for promotion and tenure, she has an outside expert in Karen, who will be able to write an evidence-based letter should she be asked to do so. Indeed, when Linda was in the position of having to “fix things now,” Karen was able to provide considerable documentation to Linda’s Dean concerning her official Plan for Improvement and progress toward each semester’s teaching objectives. The authors’ larger point is simply, but crucially, that nurse educators might consider engaging someone as a mentor who will not ever have to evaluate them in a professional capacity because peer review of teaching has the potential to be a scary thing when evaluation looms at the end of it.
Mentees and their students are not the only beneficiaries in this relationship. There are significant professional and personal benefits for the mentor as well, which we hope serve as yet more incentive for readers to consider cultivating inter-departmental mentoring relationships. At the authors’ institution, as at many of similar size and mission, advancement to senior faculty rank requires documentation of one’s influence beyond one’s own unit.
Serving as mentors in the systematic way the authors have described provides substantive evidence that education professors can extend their influence and professional knowledge beyond the education fiefdom. Studying evaluations alongside colleagues and devising techniques to improve teaching efficacy in another’s practice is bound to force mentors to consider their own practice in more depth.
Few things make us consider so-called “self-evident truths” as closely as we must when trying to explain to a novice those things we have come to take for granted. In our case, it was pedagogical strategies and the rationale for why a given one works more predictably than another one. Karen came to a new appreciation and depth of understanding of her own discipline as a direct result of exploring it with Linda, for whom it was fresh. This was a worthy personal benefit that nicely complemented the professional advancement derived from recognition as a skilled and systematic pedagogical mentor.
Happy Beginnings, not Endings
Although the Dean who initially put the authors together died unexpectedly a year after their mentoring relationship began, they invoke his presence in their now semi-annual meetings. Linda is no longer a teacher in a precarious position; she is viewed as an exemplary teacher and serves as a mentor to her new colleagues. Her students commend the robust variety of instructional strategies she uses, and her nursing colleagues seek her input on how to engage their own students more effectively. Each semester, she sends on her evaluation summaries to Karen, always prefaced with “I wish Terry [the Dean] could see these!” Karen enjoys pointing out to Linda that this comment is always followed these days by the observations that “these are the highest marks I have ever gotten!”
The success of this relationship has spawned several additional pairings between other nursing and education faculty, simultaneously improving instruction in the burgeoning nursing program and affording valuable opportunities for education faculty to engage in a scholarship of teaching in which they actually get to see and document the fruits of their labor. Knowing more about what each other does enhances professional ties and opens up avenues for collaborations that would otherwise stay dormant. This may mean increased intellectual vitality and job satisfaction for faculty in both departments, which has certainly been the case in the authors’ institution.
As schools and departments of nursing grapple with the nursing professor shortage, we commend this virtually free, home-grown solution: taking someone with rich clinical knowledge and experience and connecting them with someone whose business is teaching teachers how to teach.
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