CollectivEd: Virtual Reality Mentoring – co-authored by David Gumbrell and I

The brain doesn’t draw a distinction between the real and the imagined.

Jared Horvath

If the definition of ‘virtual’ is near, and the definition of ‘reality’ is what you experience as a human being, then the experience of ‘virtual reality’ is close to the feelings, senses and emotions of being in that situation. What you see and hear combines to provide an experience that is channelled through your emotional brain. As you appreciate this world and assimilate your sensory inputs, you are tagging experiences to feelings.

If mentoring is empathising, supporting, encouraging and improving performance, then how is that experience in terms of feelings, senses and emotions? The mentor cannot maximise skills and realise potential if the experience, channelled through the emotional brain, is not positive. If the mentee is assimilating negative sensory inputs, they will be tagging those to the event. This can have lasting effects if done inadvertently – or deliberately.

If we are to create a Virtual Reality mentoring experience, what are the feelings that we seek to engender and nurture, and which should we do our best to avoid?  To be effective, there needs to be an emotional connection. Mentoring is a feelings and values-driven process. Mentors need to consider how to start building this relationship, in a virtual way, with their mentees from September.

Actively Listening

As mentors, as we listen deeply, we need to listen to what is being said and how it is being said. We gain clarity by listening to understand, instead of listening to interject. We can tease out answers and help make sense of confusion and uncertainty by listening, mirroring back what is said and building confidence in the speaker. The speaker will be better able to communicate their feelings and articulate their concerns as they become comfortable in this virtual space; the dynamic will be strengthened as their confidence grows in both the listening and the speaking. As mentors, we also listen for what is not being said. We can help make connections and join up the dots. Active listening is supportive, reassuring and emotionally intelligent. By listening carefully and deeply, we seek to alleviate worries, concerns, anxieties and doubt. A virtual mentor is a listening ear attached to a friendly face.

Active listening is tiring because we are not used to doing it. All too often, we listen superficially rather than intently, distracted by other things on our mind or the worry that time is pressing. Listening to someone and sensitively responding to them allows them to feel confident and builds trust that you are there for them. Mentors have to listen hard to pick up nuances, key words, and the way things are being said as well as what is being said. Being skilled at this takes time and dedication; mentors have to overcome the urge to judge, speak, advise and talk at length. There is time for them to do this, but the proportion of the mentee speaking should be greater than that of the mentor. It is a fine balance to strike, but effective mentors can do this. The emotional brain can enjoy the reality of being in this safe space, as they feel that someone is listening carefully. There is no concern that they are there reluctantly, or because they just have a job to do.

Building Trust

As mentors, we are trusted to nurture the trainee teachers by the senior leaders. The mentees equally place trust in us. In any mentoring or coaching relationship, it is important to contract how this relationship is established, maintained and nourished. The more trust you instil, the more secure your mentee will feel. The more confident they are in the mentoring relationship, the more relaxed they will be in sharing what they are thinking and how they are feeling. Moreover, they will become open in disclosing what they are struggling with, both personally and professionally. Trust is the lynchpin of all relationships, but is built over time, and normally through face-to-face experiences. Consider relationships that you have formed virtually and how trust has been established. Meeting as human beings first, establishing rapport as individuals and getting to know each other is an emotional investment in the mentoring process which will enable this relationship to flourish.

Trustful relationships take time to build. Trust in relationships takes no time to break. The skill of a mentor is one who is able to construct that relationship and allow the mentee to relax in their presence. Through reassurance and actions holding true in the future, the integrity of the relationship begins to strengthen. Underpinned by values, the relationship itself is valued. Once attained, it can be developed and nurtured, and can have a significant effect on the effectiveness on that partnership to engage in professional dialogue that is both impactful and empowering. Positively conveyed, a trustful relationship can gain traction more easily and make the changes that are needed to the pedagogy and practice. In this virtual reality, there is little resistance to change, as the mentee feels secure under the guidance of their mentor as their trusted guide. Without trust there is insecurity, doubt and nervousness to proceed. Mistrusting the advice leads to a lack of engagement and thus opportunities to develop can be missed.

Identifying Goals

Goal-setting guides the mentee on their journey, and mentors support in co-creating space and co-constructing goals, thus enabling the mentee to have more ownership over their development. Individuals are empowered and have more agency when they have been involved in the processing of articulating goals and choosing which goals to prioritise. Simon Sinek talks about ‘the Why, the How and the What’ of communication. As a mentor, when goal-setting with your mentee, consider defining the ‘why’, agreeing the ‘what’, but enabling the mentee to choose the ‘how’. The more open the discussion, the more freedom there is to explore and discover the authentic way for the individual to rise to the challenge.  Confidence heightened, they will be able to learn and to grow at their own rate and in their own way. Goals can be big, or they can be small, dependent on their starting point and their context. Some goals will need challenging to be more audacious, and others will need reining in to be more realistic.

In identifying goals, we are giving a direction of travel to reach a new place – an agreed, desirable destination. All too often, goals can be imposed, delivered or given. Sometimes labelled as aspirational, they can sometimes feel impossible, especially when there are no signposts to help to support the journey to that place. As an effective mentor, you need to be looking to get agreement on the signposting, rather than the destination. Getting to checkpoint one, two and three, rather than getting to the end. In presenting it in this way, you will be striking a balance between realism and guidance – whilst not telling or not imposing. At each checkpoint, you will feel differently about the destination. You can take stock, reflect on how far your mentee has come, and prepare for the next step. In setting the reality, you as the mentor can fix these parameters and yet allow space for the mentee to experiment, experience and discover the route for themselves too. Good mentors pave the path rather than erecting the signposts that guide others on their way.

Being Realistic

As mentors, we bring our experience and our wisdom to the relationship. We help to anchor ideas, centre feelings and locate the abstract in the concrete. Being realistic, the voice of reason and pragmatic will create a sense of calm for your mentee. A sense of realism will enable them to keep perspective and reduce their feeling of overwhelm. They need you to be a calming physical presence whether in school or virtually. Creating a safe space, a calm environment and a regular opportunity to share agitations will enable conversations to explore the subjective and move to the objective. It is a human need to want to belong, and to be seen and heard. The virtual mentoring space does this. Moreover, in lockdown and in bubbles, we know that there is a sense of social isolation where the negative can quickly become amplified; the virtual mentoring space is an outlet for your mentee to diffuse their negative thoughts and feelings, which you can help them reframe.

A sense of realism can evoke a feeling of not being threatened. The most productive emotional state to be working in is when both mentor and mentee feel calm and focused on a positive outcome. Contextualisation can bring this realism and map targets against the backdrop of the school setting for the pupils. It is easier to ‘buy-in’ to the plan if the mentee feels they are being supported to succeed, rather than doomed to fail. Encouragement to be the best they can be is different to trying to achieve perfection; we are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings after all. In this atmosphere, your mentee’s sensory inputs are now reassuring them that they can do this, that is it possible and that it is realistic. No longer agitated, they feel empowered and positive, wanting to get started on this realistic journey to a new place in their teaching.

Empowering Others

Empowering others is one of the primary roles of being a mentor or a coach. Creating the conditions for early career teachers to grow, learn and flourish is a careful balancing act. Mentors need to carefully walk the tightrope between being supportive and providing structure, whilst giving enough freedom and space to experiment. Part of the ‘reflective practice cycle’ is to experiment and explore, to be able to make mistakes in a high challenge, low threat culture. Risk-taking can be inhibited by the fear of failure; opportunities for personal and professional growth can be restricted when we strive for perfectionism. Mentors need to guide their mentees and help them navigate their journey; but the mentee needs to be the one who is firmly in the driving seat. Sitting next to them, like the supportive driving instructor, you empower them to be in control and enable them to learn the ropes. Positive and constructive feedback will keep them stay future-focused and solution-oriented. Your presence is the crucial source of encouragement.

To increase the level of autonomy for your mentee is a desirable aim for all mentors, and yet sometimes this could be given more of a priority. Rather than ‘doing it for them’ we would be much better placed to move to ‘being there for them’. Motivation is key to reaching any goal and autonomy is the greatest motivator of all. The feelings evoked when one is offered control can be empowering, exhilarating and enjoyable. With your mentee intrinsically motivated, you can then guide, support, and regulate that enthusiasm to help them reach their goals. By tapping into this desire, you are both going to maintain a much faster pace of growth, productivity and effectiveness in meeting high standards in the end.

Investing Time

Mentoring is often an expectation that is not recompensed with additional time nor money. It is a ‘going above and beyond’ accolade that brings rewards through the satisfaction of nurturing other people – but it can feel like another pressure to shoe-horn into your busy schedule. To be an effective mentor, you need to project manage both yourself and your mentee. Consider the good habits you want to instil in your mentee and ensure that you model these to them. Valuing the process will require an investment of time and energy. Being highly organised and an effective communicator will ensure that the year goes smoothly. Make Outlook (or your preferred diary system) your friend and schedule everything: every mentor meeting, lesson observation, peer observation, report deadline, training session. Allocate time each week to meet, to reflect, to review and to evaluate. Little and often will ensure that you both stay on top of the process. Alongside the formal meetings, consider how else to show your mentee that you value this relationship and that you are invested in them.

Time is precious and thus a valuable gift to offer someone else. As a mentor, you have to be prepared to give the time. When you feel like wriggling out of the formal mentor meeting, you need to reframe and be enthusiastically in that space. If they need you, you have to be willing to set your own agenda on hold and to be there for them. For them, this will evoke a feeling of being valued. Not in a monetary sense but valued as a human being and valued as a teacher learning the trade. A mentor/mentee relationship needs investment for it to pay out. Lack of investment pays with lack of dividends at the end. Well-placed investment can reap rewards for both parties. Both can learn, benefit and feel better for having this shared time together. Rather than feeling onerous and the mentee feeling unwanted, mentors need to work hard to evoke feelings in their mentor that their time is being spent with them unequivocally. Switching the mindset from ‘having to be there’, to ‘wanting to be there’ is helpful. Time spent effectively is time well spent.

Showing Empathy

Before you engage with your mentee, take some time to reflect on your motivations for joining the profession. Jot down some of your thoughts and feelings about your own experiences as a student teacher, as a newly qualified teacher and as a recently qualified teacher. Identify the highs and the lows as you started your journey; consider who supported you, recognise what had the biggest impact on your progress, your confidence and your fulfilment. Mentoring is a values-driven, feelings-driven and relationship-driven process. To be an effective mentor, there needs to be a strong emotional connection with your mentee. This connection will be established and nurtured through your emotional intelligence and your empathy. By putting yourself in their shoes, you will be able to meet them where they are on their journey. Be mindful that it is likely that the profession has changed, the school system has changed, society has changed since you trained – so be contextually-literate to the current pressures and demands placed on them.

Showing empathy is not doing it for them and it is not aiming to make them emulate you. Rather, it is to guide their thinking and encourage them to be the best teacher they can be. When we have to judge, we need to feed back with sensitivity. When we meet, we acknowledge the time commitment to that meeting and use that time effectively. When we offer advice, it is done with a warmth that is not going to wrangle, but rather produce a positive reaction from the early career teacher. An empathetic mentor will be able to significantly impact on classroom practice because the mentee will feel empowered to action the changes that evolve within your meetings.

In Summary

The experience of ‘virtual reality’ is to be close to the feelings, senses and emotions of being in any situation. This piece aims to identify the key elements that would be needed for any mentor/mentee relationship that seeks to engender these positive proactive emotions with a view to them manifesting in classroom practice. For the relationship to be productive, the suggested actions in this article need to be the priority for you as the mentor. Aim to put them front and foremost at every meeting – and a successful partnership is highly likely, even if created in a virtual reality.

Virtual reality

Published by Ethical Leader

Leadership Development Consultant, Facilitator, Coach, Speaker and Writer. Experience of teaching schools, initial teacher education, mentoring & coaching, diversity and equality. Passionate about integrity, ethics and values.

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