When I first started working in a college classroom in 1971, it struck me that some members of the faculty were teachers and others were mentors. A teacher is a person who walks into a classroom and helps students learn to understand material. Some of the people I encountered were good teachers and others were not so good. The only criterion for excellence, though, was how much the students learned by the end of the semester.
A mentor was certainly a teacher but, in addition, the mentor was a little bit more. I checked on the Internet just now and found the term “mentor” defined as a trusted guide or advisor. Yeah, I have known a few of those also over the past 39 years. In fact, some of the best mentors that I have seen were not particularly good teachers. It is a different talent. However, it is a way that a faculty member can have a genuine and long lasting effect on the life of a student.
Teacher or mentor?
It seems to me that you can divide college faculty members into three categories. The first is the pure teacher who works to help students learn but has no real interest in giving advice or guidance. I have worked with some wonderful teachers who did not know the name of a single student and didn't want to know their names. As an undergraduate, I went to a large research-oriented school. I would say that virtually every college professor I had in four years at that school was a teacher. If I had walked into one of their offices and said “I’ve got an issue that I wonder if I could talk with you about,” the response would have been something like that of W. C. Fields: “Go away kid, you bother me.”
The second category is what I call “mentors for the best and brightest.” Many faculty members really like to work with the top 10 percent of their students because they can push them to excel. This is often where we get our next generation of doctors, engineers, scientist, and college professors. There are always students capable of great achievements and having a mentor to push and guide them forward is so important.
The third category is what I call “mentors with an open-door policy.” Every student feels free to walk in and talk with these faculty members about everything from majors to roommates to personal tragedies. My first four years as a college professor were at a very small, religiously-oriented college. All faculty members were expected to be mentors. Students with real problems would call me at home for personal advice.
I am not here to tell you what you ought to be. I think that is a very personal decision. What I do think, though, is that every program needs some of each. I would even say that having 33 percent of your faculty in each category is not a bad allocation. When I first started teaching, I think many of the schools that I came in contact with came pretty close to that pattern. A faculty is like a baseball team; it needs people to play different positions.
What concerns me now a bit is that I think fewer and fewer faculty members are in category three and I worry that this category may eventually become extinct. At a lot of schools, this level of mentoring has been virtually reassigned away from the faculty. Universities now have career development centers and advising services and all kinds of surrogate mentors. Those are great and awfully helpful but it is almost as if some administrator said “make a list of every question a student could possibly ask and then we’ll hire someone other than a faculty member to answer it. Keep the students away from the faculty.”
I think there should always be a few professors in every department who have an open door policy for every student and who are willing to go beyond being a teacher. Into which of these three classifications do you fall and are you satisfied with that placement? When your career is eventually over and done with, do you want to be remembered as a teacher or as a mentor?