Mentoring is one of those shadowy academic tasks which all teaching staff have to do, but no one i s trained to do. And yet, it can be hugely important to students. It probably isn't important to most students most of the time, but for some students on rare occasions (such as severe illness or bereavement) their mentor is a lifeline. To be clear, mentors don't offer therapy or counselling to students. We are there to liaise between students and the rest of the university, to direct them to the right source of help when they need it, to offer academic support, write job references and to be their advocate at exam boards. So in fact, from a student's point of view, it pays to be nice to your mentor. Get to know them so they are inspired to fight your corner if you ever need it.
I see most of my mentees rarely, there are some with problems who I spend quite a lot of time on. I had no idea before I started mentoring how common or distressing mental health problems are for students, and this is one area where I would like training and ongoing support from more experienced staff. I was once at a training course where the discussion turned to what you should do if you have a suicidal student in your office. One of the course attendees turned out to be a mental health nurse and she advised locking the windows and going to get him a cup of tea. Which is quite practical , very British advice but I feel more might be required. In fact, getting the student to the GP or university counsellor as soon as possible is probably the best advice. I have spent a fair bit of time liaising with the uni counsellor about students, and she is great. My role, as I understand it, is really to make sure the student gets medical help and advise on areas where depression impacts on cognition - for example strategies for increasing concentration and time management. Even then, the support for learning counsellor for the uni is better qualified to help.
There are a whole bunch of more academic matters we deal with relating to failing modules or repeating years and this is less frightening although it requires thorough knowledge of university regulations, or else consultation with an admin oracle who can reel off the codes required to fill in the inevitable paperwork.
The student rep asked our opinion about when mentoring doesn't work. The most obvious time is when students drop out without first talking to their mentor, who might have been able to make some of the problems go away. At some point the department tried to address this by encouraging mentors and mentees to meet a couple of times per semester. In fact, they insist that the only way students can get exam marks back is by visiting their mentor. In my view this is unfortunate because the students we most want to keep in touch with can get a bit of a head in the sand attitude and are too scared to come and collect their results and so do nothing until resit exams are looming near.
The rep also wanted to know what we expect of our mentees. This is simple. All I ask is for them to come and see me if they have a problem. Even if it is just a little worry. And to smile and say hello if they meet me in the corridor.
Lastly, there is the issue of who should be a mentor. I think it has to be a member of staff from the same academic department if the role continues to liaise between the student and otter academics. There are practical matters of arranging for deadline extensions and so on which are a lot easier to do with your colleague down the hall within the same departmental culture. But within a department, should all staff be mentors? Hmm. Let's just say that the students perceive some staff to be more approachable than others. But to be fair, my colleagues without exception care about their students and will help them where possible. There are some people who enjoy this role more than others, and some who excel at it. Students tend to drift unofficially towards such people for advice anyway. In my view, such people should be given extra training and support and -crucially- time to do this job to the best of their abilities. Other staff who don't want to do this could take on other admin tasks. I also believe that female students should have the option of a female mentor. This is sometimes an issue around female specific health problems where some women (particularly international students) may feel deeply uncomfortable talking to a man.