What makes a good mentor?

In an industry driven by an open exchange of information, mentoring is a valuable skill to nurture in both new and seasoned web developers. I look up to my instructors at HackerYou because they are rock stars in coding and teaching (and life in general, too).

So when the time came to volunteer at a Ladies Learning Code workshop, they were the voices in the back of my mind, reminding me of these three qualities of a top-notch mentor:

Be Attentive and Proactive: Make it known that you are available and open to help. While much of what the student gets out of the experience rests on their willingness to ask questions, it doesn’t mean mentors can’t reach out to their students when the situation calls for them to make the first step. This means observing their students’ body language, offering to help before being asked, and anticipating questions or problems before students encounter them.

Be Adaptive and Patient: The best mentors I’ve encountered were those who took the time to observe and adapt to their students’ individual learning styles, strengths, and concerns. This goes beyond recognizing that there is more than one way to learn, although that is a key part of mentoring. More importantly, I think, it involves adjusting your pace to the student’s level. In a previous volunteer position, I found out the person I was working with needed me to speak slower and explain the same concept multiple times for her to understand it. It was certainly a practice in patience, but I felt her confusions were more reflections of my abilities as a mentor than her abilities as a student. Mentors can play a major role in determining whether a student feels more frustrated or enlightened at the end of the day, and having some self-awareness about your own habits, techniques, and assumptions can be instrumental in improving your mentoring skills.

Ask Questions: One thing I learned from observing my instructors at HackerYou is, when students ask for help, it can be more effective to ask questions that will lead them to discover solutions on their own. During the two weeks we dedicated to learning JavaScript, I was met with a question whenever I asked for another pair of eyes to look over a function that wasn’t working properly—or working at all: Is this a local or global variable? How do you call a function that includes a parameter? What notation is used to call a method? Real learning comes not from dictation and recitation, but critical and independent thinking, and the mentors from whom I learnt the most asked more questions than gave answers.

Of course, there are many different kinds of good mentors, and they developed their distinct teaching styles by taking after the traits they admired most in the people who taught them. I’m thankful I get the chance to learn from some of the best.


Further Reading: Check out this fantastic blog post by HackerYou mentor Drew Minns (@drewisthe) about his experiences as a teacher: http://bit.ly/1t8Vte8

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