The value mentors can bring beyond education

As a student—and perhaps also later in your professional or organizational training—you will encounter instructors, coaches, and mentors. All three contribute to the educational process, but they do this in different ways and it is important to know what they do, how they do it, and the ways in which each of these different approaches provides you, the learner, with value.

  • Instructors: As a student, you have already worked with many instructors. Instructors are subject-matter experts who have also been trained to created productive learning environments. They design academic courses, guide students through these courses, and try to make sure that students create useful knowledge about a particular subject. Instructors primarily teach. For example, when I work as an instructor in a Cross-culture Management course, my main role is teaching—that is, helping students to explore, understand, and develop an appreciation of how management changes when it takes place across different national cultures. My job is not to give students knowledge but rather to help them create their own knowledge. Some students think that instruction is about transferring or transmitting knowledge, but it is not. It is actually about helping students construct knowledge for themselves.
  • Coaches: A coach is focused on motivating, encouraging, and challenging the student to successfully complete an important educational activity. Coaches might do some teaching and they will certainly share their knowledge and experience, but they are more narrowly focused on encouraging the student to succeed. So, when I offer a Principles of Accounting course, about 90% of what I do is teaching and my role is mostly that of an instructor. However, at the end of the course—when students have to complete their final exam—my role changes. I become a coach. Students know what they have to do to complete the exam (they possess the theoretical understanding of accounting) but they might not be able to apply accounting principles, or they might lack confidence, or they might simply not have enough practice and competency to succeed on the exam. They need a coach—a person who can focus specifically on the final exam and provide the support, encouragement and motivation, and who can “push” them to do better than they think they can.
  • Mentors: Mentoring lies somewhere between instruction and coaching. Mentors are subject-matter experts who have a wide and deep experience in their subjects. They teach the subject of their expertise, and are probably instructional experts in their field of study. They will be able to answer your questions and, more importantly, they will also prompt you to ask questions that you were unaware of. However, mentors will generally assume that you have an adequate understanding of the subject matter. Like coaches, they will provide motivation and encouragement. They will challenge you to do more, and to do better than you think you are capable of. At Empire State College (ESC), for example, they will challenge you to write a really outstanding Senior Project. Mentors work very closely with those who learn with them (mentees). Most mentoring is done one-on-one, rather than with groups—it is personal, focused, and it provides the individual mentees with what they need in order to succeed, grow, and develop.


I have been a mentor for a very long time, and have contributed extensively to the academic literature on the process of mentoring. Although there are many definitions of mentoring, there are two in particular that I think (for different reasons) are particularly accurate and useful. The first is given by Ray Pawson (2004), who sees mentoring as “a never-ending list” that includes:

Helping, coaching, tutoring, counselling, sponsoring, role modelling, befriending, bonding, trusting, mutual learning, direction setting, progress chasing, sharing experience, providing respite, sharing a laugh, widening horizons, building resilience, showing ropes, informal apprenticeships, providing openings, kindness of strangers, sitting by Nellie, treats for bad boys and girls, the Caligula phenomenon, power play, tours of middle class life, etc. etc. (p. 1)


Pawson’s list is a good example of English wit and humor, but despite being playful, it also captures many of the things that happen in mentoring. It certainly demonstrates the wide-ranging and different elements that go into mentoring.

The second more formal, but equally accurate and valuable, description of mentoring is provided by Anne Powell (1997). She understands that mentoring is a relational engagement between individuals, each possessing different levels of experience and knowledge, in order to:

…improve that person’s chances for achieving his or her goals by linking them to resources and support not otherwise available. The role of the mentor is to pass on knowledge, experience and judgment, and/or to provide guidance and support… [to provide] psychosocial support for changes in behavior, attitudes and ambitions….with the goals of reassuring innate worth, instilling values, guiding curiosity, and encouraging a positive youthful life. Distinguished from child rearing and friendship, the mentoring relationship is intended to be temporary, with the objective of helping the protégé reach independence and autonomy. (p. 4).


This definition provides a really good insight into who mentors are, what they do, and how they do it. It also provides the mentee—in educational contexts we refer to mentees, while they are called protégés in organizational and professional contexts—with an understanding of what they can expect from the mentoring relationship. It is very important in the mentoring relationship that mentees understand what to expect. They will receive their mentor’s shared knowledge, considerable experience, professional judgement, careful guidance, and ongoing support. In addition, the mentoring relationship is designed to have a reassuring effect on the mentees’ self-worth, to provide new values and perspectives, and to guide their interest and curiosity.

As Powell (1997) notes, mentoring lasts for a specific period of time. In organization and in many professional contexts, mentoring relationships can last for many years. For students who are attending ESC, however, mentoring will last for about a year. There is a reason why these mentoring relationships come to an end: they are specifically designed to be temporary. They are designed to come an end when the mentee has achieved the degree of independency, confidence, and autonomy that he or she requires. Mentors might sense when that has happened, but mentees will know when it has and they will realize that it is time to move on—perhaps to enter another mentoring relationship as part of their organizational training or their professional development.

If this is the first time that you will have a mentor and engage in a mentoring relationship, there are two other things that you need to know. First, the mentoring program is supervised by ESC, which is the newest college in the State University of New York system. In 1971, when ESC was created, the college dedicated itself to provide innovative and student-centered learning with mentoring is at its core. ESC has a long and very successful mentoring history and its expertise in this field is renowned within American higher education. The ESC Center of Mentoring and Learning and Academic Innovation is actively engaged to ensure that all of our mentoring is of the highest quality and that ESC mentors are specially selected to guarantee that every mentee has access to experienced and competent professional educators.


Second, some mentees are concerned because their mentors will work with them at a distance. The root of the concern is that students do not appreciate mentoring and understandably confuse it with instruction. In a teaching situation it makes sense if instructors are readily available: standing in front of their classes or accessible during their office hours. Of course, students do not have concerns when they are taking online courses and their teachers are not physically present—or for that matter, when they want to talk with their friends—because today, electronic communication is simple, instant, and effective. Remember that mentors do not teach directly and that they are always available to work with their mentees, answer their questions, and provide the guidance and assurance that is needed. Today, mentoring relationships are increasingly carried out at a distance (often called e-mentoring). That trend has neither affected the quality nor the effectiveness of mentoring. In fact, e-mentoring allows students to work with the best mentors available no matter where they happen to be located. Mentors and mentees need to establish and maintain a close working relationship, but communicating and sharing in our modern age is as close as an email or a Zoom conference call.


Having a mentor and entering into the process of mentoring is exciting for all concerned. Mentoring provides a different understanding of the work that we have to do and it gives us the support, confidence, and ability to do what we might not have thought possible. Understanding a little about mentoring—and about what mentors do—will undoubtedly allow you to make optimal use of the new mentoring relationships that you undertake in the future.



Pawson, R. (2004). Mentoring relationships: An explanatory review. Working Paper 21, Economic and Social Research Council, UK Center for Evidence Based Policy and Practice. London, UK: ESRC. Retrieved from

Powell, M. A. (1997). Academic tutoring and mentoring: A literature review. Sacramento, CA: California Research Bureau, California State Library. Retrieved from http://www.library

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