View From the Classroom: Reflective mentoring

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes they’re professionals who actively and formally lend a guiding hand to our practice or to our career.  Sometimes they’re colleagues or friends who help us more casually with both professional development and personal growth.  Sometimes they’re people that we don’t even know, but people who nevertheless inspire us to be better in one way or another.  Importantly, they’re not always top-down on the career ladder; we can almost always get good mentoring from a variety of people around us.

However they come, mentors teach us.  They teach us the ways of the profession.  They teach us the customs and norms of practice.  They teach us about the people and the institutions in our community.  And they teach us about ourselves—who we are, and who we want to be, both as professionals and as ordinary people.

Mentors teach in different ways.  Sometimes they teach us formally, as when they give us advice, instructions, or feedback on this or that.  Sometimes they teach us informally, as when they inspire us through their actions.

Sometimes they teach us in ways that we don’t even see at the time.  Indeed, sometimes we don’t even know they’re a mentor.  Sometimes we have to think and reflect on those who have influenced us over the years to identify our mentors—and to identify what they taught us.  But this kind of reflection is well worth it: we can often find hidden gems in our uncovered mentor relationships—gems that can help us develop and grow in sometimes surprising ways.

And of course this works the other way around.  If we can’t always see that we’re being mentored, our mentors can’t always see that they’re mentoring.  If this is right, then any one of us might be acting as a mentor, even without knowing it.  We might be mentoring directly, indirectly through our words and deeds, or even secretly.  And just as we can grow by thinking and reflecting on those who have mentored and influenced us, we can grow too by thinking and reflecting on those we might be mentoring.  This kind of reflection is also well worth it: we can learn and grow by remembering that our own words and actions can impact others—often in ways that we can’t see or anticipate.

Reflective mentoring means that we consider both our own mentors and those we might be mentoring.  It means that we think about both what we’ve learned and what we’re teaching through our advice and actions.  It means that we not only appreciate our own mentors and those we mentor, but that we also learn and grow through these relationships in a more reflective, thoughtful way.

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