Becoming a Mentor: Giving Back and Leveling Up

Being a mentor is an excellent way to enrich your own practice, give back to the community, and play a part in the development of the profession. Read on to learn more about mentoring and how you can get started!

Take a moment to reflect on the course of your education and career, and on the people who were involved in significant moments along the way. If you were asked to name one, two, or five people whose support, guidance, and wisdom were crucial to your learning and development, who would appear on that list? Although the relationship between you and those people may or may not have been formal or structured, it’s likely that you were involved in a mentoring relationship.

You may be at a point in your career where you would like to give back to the community and profession by taking on such a role. Being a mentor is an excellent way to enrich your own practice while playing a part in the development of the profession. So, how do you go about doing this? In the following, we’ll introduce you to a range of formats and types of mentoring relationships and share suggestions for getting involved.

What Is Mentoring?

You’ve probably heard the word “mentor” used many times without thinking too much about what it means. Merriam-Webster defines a mentor as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.”1 The fact is that this label can be applied to a wide range of relationships and situations. There isn’t one fixed definition or description of what a mentor “is” or “does.” Mentoring can range from very informal and unstructured to very formal and structured. It can be an officially or institutionally facilitated connection, or it can form organically. It can be limited in terms of time and scope, or it can be long-lasting and wide-ranging. It can occur one-on-one or in groups. It can involve working with students, newly-minted professionals, or experienced colleagues looking for guidance in a specific area. A person can have one mentor or many.

The National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers defines mentorship as follows:

“A mentorship is a supportive relationship established between two or more individuals where knowledge, skills, and experience are shared. The mentee is someone seeking guidance in developing specific competencies, self-awareness, and skills in early intervention. The mentor is a person who has expertise in the areas of need identified by the mentee and is able to share their wisdom in a nurturing way. The mentorship established between two or more individuals is unique to their needs, personality, learning styles, expectations, and experiences. In this relationship, the mentee has the opportunity to ask questions, share concerns, and observe a more experienced professional within a safe, protected environment. Through reflection and collaboration between the mentor-mentee pair or group, the mentee can become more self-confident and competent in their integration and application of the knowledge and skills gained in the mentorship demonstrating best practice.”2

From this definition, we can extract a number of relevant features/aspects. A mentoring relationship:

  • Is Supportive: The relationship is a positive force/safe space in the life of the mentee.
  • Involves Sharing Knowledge, Skills, and Experience: This sharing runs both ways (not just from mentor to mentee!). Effective communication is fundamental to this process.
  • Involves Someone Seeking Guidance: The mentee has chosen to be in this relationship because they are seeking something.
  • Involves a Person with Expertise: The mentor is someone who has relevant experience/expertise that the mentee can draw upon. This implies the possibility that a person might seek out multiple mentors over time for distinct purposes.
  • Is Unique: Each mentoring relationship is different and develops in a situated (contextualized) fashion.
  • Is an Opportunity for Inquiry and Observation: The mentee is enabled to interact with the mentor through observation and conversation. The relationship provides a balance of challenge and support within a context that is both safe and allows for learning and growth.
  • Involves Development: The mentee’s competence and confidence improve as a result of the relationship.

As the description above implies, mentoring relationships can have many functions, including providing psychological and emotional support, role modeling, career guidance, skill development, and sponsoring/promoting the mentee in professional contexts.3 One of the hallmarks of mentoring is that it tends to be focused on development. Another is that it tends to be mentee-driven.

Why Mentor?

Mentoring someone isn’t just about sharing wisdom, passing along expertise, or supporting the development of (future) colleagues. Mentoring is also expected to benefit the mentor. Whether you’re working with a student, a new professional, or a colleague, the interactions you have as a mentor will lead you to reflect more critically and deeply on your professional practice. You’ll also have the opportunity to develop your repertoire of skills and knowledge relevant to effective mentoring practice, such as active listening, interpersonal relations, building trust, setting and maintaining boundaries, engaging in productive feedback conversations, and offering structured learning.

You may have heard of the framework for understanding skill development often attributed to Martin Broadwell4, a management trainer who theorized in 1969 that learners move through four stages in mastering a skill:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: The individual is unaware of how to do something and of the value of the skill.
  • Conscious Incompetence: Although the individual doesn’t understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit and the value of the new skill in addressing the deficit.
  • Conscious Competence: The individual understands or knows how to do something, but demonstrating the skill or knowledge still requires concentration.
  • Unconscious Competence: The individual has practiced a skill so much that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily.

Some have also suggested that a fifth stage exists, in which one develops what David Baume, an independent international higher education researcher, evaluator, and consultant, calls “reflective competence.” This means you’re able to practice at the unconscious competence level while still remaining critical and reflective of what you do and how you do it. This awareness will allow you to recognize skill deficiencies in others and help them by passing on what you’ve learned so that they can eventually develop unconscious competence.5

As a mentor, you’ll have an opportunity to progress to this stage by intentionally reflecting on how you work, even if you don’t actually need to think about it to carry it out successfully. By doing so, mentoring may help you move to a new level in your own understanding and practice of interpreting and translation.

As an example from Doug Bowen–Bailey’s experience, a mentee recently asked him for support on building English vocabulary. Doug reflected on his own journey in both the ways he had incidental exposure to English in a variety of settings and registers, as well as the specific strategies he uses to continue that learning. For him, listening to podcasts is an important tool to access language use from English speakers of different cultural backgrounds and in different genres. So, he suggested various podcasts for this newer interpreter to listen to that include vocabulary items situated within discourse. This intentional reflection both assists the newer interpreter and supports Doug in his continued growth as a practitioner.

Preparing to Mentor

Although it may seem simplistic to say, the first step to becoming a mentor is to make the conscious decision to move in that direction. It’s possible to take on a mentoring role without having set out purposefully to do so. However, and especially if you wish to become part of a more formal or structured mentorship program, establishing the goal of becoming a mentor is an important and powerful step.

Having made the decision to be a mentor, the next step is to deepen your knowledge and understanding of mentoring and effective mentoring practices. While we don’t have space here to discuss these practices at length, here are a few key mentoring skills with which to be aware:

  • Be an Active Listener: This is the most basic mentoring skill, which the other skills build on and require. Demonstrate genuine interest in the mentee by making encouraging responses, such as reflecting back (paraphrasing) certain comments to show you’ve grasped the meaning and feelings behind the message. For example, a mentee might share detailed stories of some challenging situations they’ve had to navigate. You might respond with a comment such as “It seems like ____ [situational/contextual element] is proving challenging for you lately.” Other times, using back channeling behaviors such as nodding, gesturing, and other facial expressions/body language can demonstrate that you’re engaged in listening.
  • Build Trust: Trust develops over time. Some key concepts in building trust include keeping confidences, spending appropriate time together, following through on what you said you would do, respecting boundaries, admitting your errors and taking responsibility for correcting them, tactfully sharing when you disagree or are dissatisfied with something that happened during or between sessions, and creating a safe space for others to share the same information with you.
  • Offer Encouragement: Part of the mentor’s role is to be the cheerleader. As mentors, we support novice interpreters and translators through difficult conversations, encountering obstacles, and self-discovery all while believing in their personal and professional competence. Take opportunities to share with the mentee how you see them improving and what personal traits you value about them. Encourage them often, both personally and professionally, in person or through a follow-up email after mentoring sessions.

To learn more about mentoring, we encourage you to take advantage of the many resources out there, including the following available free online:

The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM
National Academy of Sciences
https://bit.ly/NCBI-STEMM
This book brings together a wealth of information on mentoring and on effective mentoring practices, drawn from scholarly, peer-reviewed sources.

Introduction to Mentoring: A Guide for Mentors and Mentees
American Psychological Association
https://bit.ly/APA-mentoring
This brief guidebook covers a number of useful points, including mentoring etiquette and ethics.

Experiential Learning in Interpreter Education
CATIE Center at St. Catherine University
https://bit.ly/CATIE-interpreter
This document summarizes relevant scholarly literature related to various aspects of experiential learning. While it focuses primarily on American Sign Language/English interpreting, the material it discusses is relevant to the general teaching and learning of interpreting and translation.

GTC Supervisor Institute
CATIE Center at St. Catherine University
https://bit.ly/GTC-training
Developed by the CATIE Center, this archived online training has 11 modules focusing on different aspects of mentoring and supervision. While it focuses on American Sign Language/English interpreting, many of the resources are applicable to mentoring for any language pair. It also references a number of relevant books and resources.

Getting Started

There are many ways to get started as a mentor. If you’re interested in being part of a formal/structured mentoring program, local training programs are a good place to begin, as many will have practicum or internship requirements for their students. Find out what colleges and universities near you offer certificates, degrees, or other types of programs in translation and interpreting and contact their directors or internship coordinators to express your interest in being a mentor. Programs offered privately/outside academia may also have internship or practicum requirements.

If you work for a company, talk to your manager or director about whether your company could become an internship site for students. (An article about this appeared in the January/February issue of The ATA Chronicle.6) Similarly, indicate your interest in taking on a preceptor or mentoring role for new hires. If you’re a contractor or freelancer with an agency, let the agency know you’re interested and willing to serve as a mentor for students placed by a training program, or for new contractors on the agency’s roster.

Another option for more formal/structured mentoring experiences is to join a program sponsored by a professional organization. For example, ATA has a mentoring program that you can learn about at www.atanet.org/career-education/mentoring.

If you’re primarily interested in less formal/structured mentoring relationships, be patient and allow time and space for such relationships to form. An important step is to open the door, metaphorically speaking, to the possibility of such relationships by being active within the profession, meeting and interacting with people, and letting others know that you’re available and willing to offer support. Exist and engage in the world in a way that makes it clear you’re approachable and encouraging. If you have a particular strength or specific interest, make it known that you’re happy to answer questions and offer advice to others. In short, although you can’t force a mentoring relationship into existence, you can create opportunities for it to form and flourish.

Reflect on Your Motivation

It can also be helpful to consider your motivation for becoming a mentor and the strengths and weaknesses you bring. You’ll also want to consider what type and scope of mentoring relationship will work best for you, both personally and professionally. For example:

  • Are you well-suited to working with students in a more formal/structured relationship that will likely require more time and energy?
  • Do you want a mentoring relationship that’s less structured or time-consuming?
  • Do you have insight to offer in a specific area or domain of expertise, such as expanding professional networks or learning to use a specific technology?

Your experience as a mentor will be richer and more enjoyable (and thus likely to last longer) if there’s a good match between your strengths and preferences and the type of mentoring opportunities you seek.

We hope this brief overview of mentoring has piqued your interest and will motivate you to consider how you can contribute to the profession and enrich your own practice by mentoring others. To conclude, we offer three brief pointers and reminders:

  1. Being a good mentor isn’t something that one just is or that just happens on its own. Mentoring is a skill to acquire that requires hard work, learning, and practice, just like any other skill.
  2. Developing our skills as mentors requires sustained self-analysis and critical reflection. This is not always an easy process, but it’s a valuable one.
  3. As mentors, we must be humble and open. For example, rather than attempting to save face in an awkward situation or trying to always seem perfect in front of a mentee, we must be able to use difficult situations as learning experiences and discuss our work honestly and openly.
Did You Know ATA’s Mentoring Program Is Always Looking for Experienced Mentors?

Provided by and for peers, ATA offers mentoring to support members with the business-side of translation and interpreting. Both mentees and mentors benefit from this mutually rewarding program.

Mentors are an essential part of our profession. If you have the professional experience and desire to share what you’ve learned with others, ATA’s Mentoring Program could be a perfect opportunity! Even though the deadline has passed for this year’s program, you can still plan ahead to apply to be a mentor in 2023! To find out more, visit https://bit.ly/ATA-mentoring-program.

 

Notes
  1. Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mentor.
  2. “What Is Mentoring?” (National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers), https://bit.ly/NCIEC-mentor.
  3. “The Science of Mentoring Relationships: What Is Mentorship?” In The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. Edited by Angela Byars-Winston and Maria Lund Dahlberg (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2019), https://bit.ly/NCBI-mentoring.
  4. “Conscious Competence Learning Model—Martin Broadwell,” https://bit.ly/Broadwell-learning.
  5. “Conscious Competence Learning Model—David Baume,” https://bit.ly/Baume-learning
  6. McKee, Mary. “Reflections on Running a Micro-Internship: Making a Difference by Starting Small,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2022), 19, https://bit.ly/McKee-internships.

Rachel E. Herring is the director of the Translation and Interpreting Program at Century College (Minnesota) and works as a per diem interpreter at Children’s Minnesota. She has an MA in translation and interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a PhD in interpreting from the University of Geneva. She has presented on interpreting and interpreter training in a variety of venues, both nationally and internationally. rachel.herring@century.edu

Doug Bowen–Bailey is an instructional designer with the CATIE Center at St. Catherine University and works as a community interpreter based in Duluth, Minnesota. He has also mentored American Sign Language>English interpreters for over 20 years. He has an MA in interpreting studies and communication equity from St. Catherine University. dfbowenbailey@stkate.edu

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