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Mentor Relationships and Gifted Learners

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

"If we want them to achieve, we must link them with achievers....One plus one--Pass it on." (H. Weinberg, The Public Television Outreach Alliance) One of the most valuable experiences a gifted student can have is exposure to a mentor who is willing to share personal values, a particular interest, time, talents, and skills. When the experience is properly structured and the mentor is a good match for the student, the relationship can provide both mentor and student with encouragement, inspiration, new insights, and other personal rewards.

The idea of mentoring is as old as mankind. Ancient Greece introduced the concept, and it was institutionalized during the Middle Ages. The term MENTOR does not imply an internship, an apprenticeship, or a casual hit-or-miss relationship in which the student simply spends time in the presence of an adult and information is transmitted (Boston, 1989). Internships and apprenticeships are valuable because they allow students to learn new skills and investigate potential career interests. A mentorship, on the other hand, is a dynamic shared relationship in which values, attitudes, passions, and traditions are passed from one person to another and internalized. Its purpose is to transform lives (Boston, 1976).

Research and case studies focusing on mentors and mentorships often address the effects of the mentor in terms of career advancement, particularly for women (Kerr, 1983). The research emphasis on professional advancement and success takes priority over clarifying the basic characteristics of the relationship and its importance to gifted students (Kaufmann, Harrel, Milam, Woolverton, & Miller, 1986). Kaufmann's (1981) study of Presidential Scholars from 1964 to 1968 included questions pertaining to the nature, role, and influence of their most significant mentors. Having a role model, support, and encouragement were the most frequently stated benefits. Respondents also stated that they strongly benefited from mentors who set an example, offered intellectual stimulation, communicated excitement and joy in the learning process, and understood them and their needs. Kaufmann's research also underscored the critical importance of mentors for gifted girls. The study, conducted 15 years after these students graduated from high school, indicated that when the earning powers of the women were equal to those of the men, the women had had one or more mentors. In other words, the presence of a mentor may equalize earning power.

Mentor relationships with dedicated scholars, artists, scientists, or businesspeople are highly suitable for gifted adolescents, particularly those who have mastered the essentials of the high school curriculum. Many of these students have multiple potentials (they like everything and are good at everything) and may encounter college and career planning problems if they cannot establish priorities or set long-term goals (Berger, 1989; Frederickson & Rothney, 1972; Kerr, 1985). Such students may have more options and alternatives than they can realistically consider. Parents often notice that mentors have a maturing effect: Students suddenly develop a vision of what they can become, find a sense of direction, and focus their efforts. Some exemplary programs were described by Cox, Daniel, and Boston (1985) in EDUCATING ABLE LEARNERS.

Students from disadvantaged populations may also benefit strongly from mentor relationships (McIntosh & Greenlaw, 1990). Mentor programs throughout the nation (e.g., Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, Austin, TX, and Denver, CO) match bright disadvantaged youngsters of all ages with professionals of all types. Student self-confidence and aspirations are raised to new heights as the relationship grows and develops. Young adolescents gain a sense of both the lifestyle associated with the mentor's profession and the educational course that leads to it. These relationships extend far beyond the boundaries of local schools, where they often start, as mentors become extended family members and, later, colleagues. Said one mentor, in a Public Broadcasting Service documentary film (James & Camp, 1989), "This is not just a business relationship. I specialize in [student's name]." The mentor, a renowned journalist who works with one student at a time and offers workshops in mentoring, went on to say, "We unlock the future. Our relationship is valuable at various stages of life and in different ways." The student responded, "I'm glad he's so critical [of my work]. A mentor sees things in you, things you may not have seen yourself." A true mentor relationship does not formally end. In this instance, both parties were energized by the process and said that they have continued to learn from one another, growing personally and professionally. They thought of one another as colleagues, although the student, currently a journalist in a large city, still relies on her mentor when she needs advice on a news story. They communicate by fax machine. Each has made an indelible imprint upon the life of the other.

The following guidelines, adapted from GIFTED CHILD MONTHLY (Kaufmann, 1988), may be useful to parents and educators who wish to explore mentor relationships for gifted youngsters.

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