Mentor Primer: Bosses at Blackboards

Learning involves taking risks--experimenting with new ideas and skills. And, who’s going to deliberately look foolish in front of the “writer of the performance appraisal?” How can the “boss at the blackboard” encourage learning when simply “being the boss” puts power, control, and “play it safe” in the “classroom?” Below are four tips:

Be open and authentic!

If you want learners to take risks, they must see you do likewise. Create a level playing field by acting as open and real as possible. Put your energy into acting normal, not being perfect. Ever notice how someone gets up to speak in front of a group, and their voice sounds “ teachery?” Just talk with your learners, not at them. If you make errors, smile and move on. Take your content serious, but don’t take yourself serious. If you lighten up and have fun, so will they.

Ask before you tell.

Teachers sometimes think they have to prove their expertise by having all the answers. Remember, your goal is to help people learn, NOT demonstrate your smartness. If they discover the answer through your questions, they will remember it a lot longer than if you tell them the answer.  Respond to their questions by saying, “I have some ideas on that, but what do YOU think?” Teach through questions, not lectures. You are a facilitator (meaning “to make easy”) not a professor (meaning “to profess to others”)!

Steer clear of controlling gestures.

We all have keen antennae for signs of power and control. Facial expressions which communicate judgment, disapproval or disbelief do not encourage learners to experiment and grow. Subtle non-verbals such as hands on hips or a pointing finger, position you as a “school marm” rather than coach or mentor.  If you need to gesture, use palms up rather than a pointing finger. Put your hands in your pocket or by your side, rather than on your hips.

Be a role model.

It is important your classroom behavior match what you want your employees to learn. If, for instance, you are teaching communications, demonstrate your content through the ways you communicate. As cowboy humorist Will Rogers said, “People learn from observation, not conversation.” And, while he was talking about politicians, the concept fits the classroom. Always make sure your message and your actions are a matched set.

The definition of mentoring is “a sensitive, trusted advisor.” When you are a “boss at the blackboard,” the sensitive part of the definition is key...especially if you want employees to “trust your advice.”  Remember, learning begins with risk; risk happens if there is safety; and safety will not mix with power.   Take off your “boss” hat when you pick up the chalk…or magic marker!!

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