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The problems in mentor-mentee relationship in our society has been discussed from an experience based approach. Mentors should become special friends to the mentees and might eventually rise to the level of friend, philosopher and guide. However, all seeds do not make big trees. So, a friend plus position for the period of cooperation is good enough. Mentor and mentees may be close in age like classmates or they may have age gap of one or two generations. Mentees like to see mentors to be slightly advanced co-thinker of the problems faced by them.

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On 8th September 2021 BCCI announced the name of M. S. Dhoni (MS) as the mentor of India’s T20 team for the upcoming ICC T20 men’s world cup. The captain of the team, probably the vice-captain too, both prospective mentees, were involved in the process of his appointment. As the news spread, the players and other prospective mentees rejoiced. So, MS must have something in him, appropriate for a mentor. He was a fellow player of some of the team members, captain of some and may even be an idol of a few. Some had experienced his association and others had heard from friends about him. It is said that he is the “captain cool”. Pressure or ease of the situation in the field, success or failure at the end of a particular game … nothing elicits any expression on his face. Possibly, internally too, he does not feel perturbed in such eventualities. This helped him to win more games. Not only that, he is said to have helped juniors in cutting across their ego while retaining their self-confidence intact or giving it a further boost. Cricket lovers across the globe, not only the Indians, know many of his qualities and all agreed that it was a masterstroke from BCCI.


Mentors are there in every field and at every level. In academia, which is often limited to reading, writing, thinking, experimenting, innovating, discovering etc., we have formal mentors like teachers, supervisors, deans, principals etc. However, to complete the list of mentors, one needs to add the parents, some other family members, some senior students and some fellow batch-mates. But there is a question. Do all the mentees rejoice like the players on MS’s appointment as mentor?


I remember a farewell meeting of one of my colleagues during the first decade of this century. Some of my ex-colleagues were invited there as special guests. One of them repeatedly expressed his idea about teacher-taught relation and the “cyclic” circulation of knowledge. Teachers are the givers of knowledge, students are takers of it. Students are to reproduce that knowledge in the examinations and then take their turn as teachers. Then they are to give the same knowledge to their students. Thus knowledge cycle runs. I had a jerk in my brain. I had something to say. This giver-taker relation does not assume creation of any new idea. No innovation, no discovery, just the knowledge cycle repeating over and over again. I was the principal of the college at that time (after serving the college for about 28 years as a teacher). By default, I was presiding the meeting. So, I had to say something as the last speaker. At that time, the number of persons in the dais and audience reduced to 20% or less of the peak attendance, which was when my ex-colleagues had spoken. Most of the audience left the premises after giving gifts to the retiring teacher!


In my speech, I tried to say that the teacher-student relation needs to be conducive to discussions and fruitful for creation of ideas and innovations. Even if, in most cases, the teachers have read more and gained more experience, freshness of the students’ mind is important. Her uncorrupted views and approaches on the subjects of learning might produce interesting and new paths. In addition, it generates mutual respect, faith etc., creating the platform for a healthy mentor-mentee relation. Very soon, I understood that I was saying something that was too foreign to my audience. So, I changed my topic. No wonder, on our way back from the meeting, colleagues and ex-colleagues were talking in low voice about the absurdities of the Principal’s views. Oh! I uttered the words: “mutual respect”!


I have believed from my school days that all relations, including those of teacher-student, parents-children should rest on mutual respect. There is an old saying that when a son turns sixteen year-old, the father should treat him as a friend. But, it is more of a saying than a belief or practice. And, what if the child is a daughter or the son is below sixteen? Actually, “mutual respect”is an absurd concept for such relations in our culture. Some of my colleagues, who were my co-workers in some tasks beyond the compulsions of service, laughed at my claim. They were confident that I was unable to differentiate between affection and respect!


However, “mutual respect” is not the only issue for a successful mentor-mentee relation. This is a very complex relationship. To elaborate the complexity, I will describe a case I heard. It is about a PhD student and her mentor. After the mentee was admitted in the institution and they were introduced, the mentor remembered that she knew the mentee as an introvert child of eight or nine with some exceptional academic qualities and some exceptional problems of language development, social mixing etc. Thus she was a problem child in both senses, advanced in some traits and lagging in some others. Now, she started to mix with her like a friend. Soon it was clear to her that she was carrying the exceptionalities till now. She felt an urge to take up a challenge of mentoring her. When the issue of selecting PhD guide appeared, she sent the mentee to her own PhD supervisor instead of accepting her. At the same time, she briefed the PhD supervisor about the matter. During the next few years, she guided her in research related works as and when necessary. Not only that, she took her to different outings: restaurants, movies, mini pleasure trips etc whenever possible. Initially, the mentee was not feeling comfortable to be part of all these matters beyond studies and showed arrogance or displeasure to be with her in these outings. But, with the passage of time, she learned to adjust to all these and became more social. By the time of submission of PhD thesis of the mentee, the mentor was happy that she could almost fulfil her aim.


So far we have mostly discussed the personal aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship. However, the mentor needs fairly high degree of knowledge of the topic or subject which links the mentor and mentee as well. Otherwise, the mentee does not feel secure and the process does not take off. In general, mentees try to accept mentor without judging relevant knowledge level of the mentor. Exceptions to this may be seen due to (i) excessive self-pride of mentees and/or (ii) suspicion about new and unknown mentor when the previous one worked very well.


While starting the journey of mentoring, an able mentor should be able to read the psychology, level of understanding, personality quickly and proceed appropriately. Flexibility becomes an important issue here. An able mentor does not show rigidity in practice, even if the level of the mentees does not match the personal “syllabus” or expectations of the mentor. An effective beginning may help to accelerate in later stages to cope up with such issues. But the problem may not always be so easy to handle. One or two mentees might be diehard egoist. In general, it would be useful to silently ignore their ego and treat them at par with other mentees. A good mentor helps to sort out the “real important points” from many “seemingly important issues”. She absorbs a lot of pressure about the past failures and imbibes spirit of future success in the mind of mentees. In the process, workload of mentees reduces, their confusions get cleared up and these help them to concentrate on their works. Not only these, gradually they feel confident enough to express their ideas. They develop self-respect and respectability.


Except in some office trainings or academic training institutions, generally mentors are senior in age compared to the mentees. But it is not compulsory even in academia. It is not rare that a PhD scholars’ supervisor is junior to the scholar. Even in regular degree studies, some students may re-join academic institutions after prolonged discontinuation from formal studies. Generally, mentors try to develop friendship with the mentees. It is not difficult when age difference is not very much. But is it possible if the difference of age is significantly large?


To give a reply to it, I will share a purely personal experience of mentoring children of four or five years when I was in my fifties. Outside my college duties, I used to attend some mini schools for children. I used to attend such a school once or twice a month. There was a 4 ft x 5 ft black board in the school. Whenever I attended the class, I asked the children to come to the board to write or draw whatever they learnt. Always four or five children came to the board at a time and wrote or drew whatever they could. Always I would start my comment with “well done”, be it right or wrong, good or bad. Regular teachers or mothers or grandmothers of the children felt it to be inappropriate indulgence and sometimes some grandmothers protested to it. But, I, with folded hands, politely asked them to be patient. After the “class” I would meet with one or two or more children one to one. Let me skip some less important details of the sequence of events and jump to a climax. One day, I sat face to face with a child. The child drew something and said it to be a well-known animal. As usual, I said it was well drawn. Suddenly, the child slapped me on my thigh and rebuked me, “It is so bad and yet you call it good!” Just remember, the age difference is about 50 years in this interaction and it does not become a barrier to the friendly behaviour.


Now, a note is pertinent about the other end of the spectrum. How close they can be in age? Can the mentors be the classmates of mentees? Hopefully most of the readers will be able to find the answer by reflecting on own experiences. Classmates come really close to each other when a mentor-mentee bond starts to develop between them. Sometimes, it also happens that one of the two friends is mentor in respect of some issues and the other in some others. Finally, can the mentors be juniors? In some cases, particularly in the field of work in offices or institutions, juniors in age can assume the role of mentors. However, such cases are not very common.


Let me conclude now. Mentors can do their work well when they appear to mentees to be fellow travellers with little bit more knowledge and anticipation of the road, as if they have travelled the road just once before. They talk and behave with mentees like friends with a little bit extra. They should be co-thinker of the problems faced by mentees. In some cases, the inner feelings of the mentees start to get clearer shapes in association with the mentor. Then the mentor reaches the level of their philosopher, a friend-philosopher. In some cases, the relationship deepens further. The friend-philosopher mentors help the mentees to choose the route to various facets of future life. They become guides too to the mentees. Friend, philosopher and guide is the ultimate of a mentor’s role to the mentees. But, that need not be the target to the mentor. A “friend plus” position to mentees is good enough for mentors.


Debabrata Majumdar has formally studied and taught Physics and retired from service in 2016 as Principal of a degree college in rural West Bengal. He is a believer of lifelong learning and life-centric education, and now engaged in exploring the process of learning by children. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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