Paying it forward: on mentors and mentoring.
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Social workers (Vocational guidance)
Social workers (Training)
Career development (Methods)
Mentors (Methods)
Authors: Pomeroy, Elizabeth C.
Steiker, Lori Holleran
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 56 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 280 Personnel administration
Product: Product Code: 9918560 Career Planning
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 262582570
Full Text: Since the time of Aristotle and Plato, the concept of mentoring has permeated our psychosocial and career development at all stages of our lives. Although the mentor--mentee relationship is common in a variety of fields, it is an invaluable resource in social work education and practice. Given that social work is a practice-oriented profession involving skill-based learning, experienced practitioners are the role models for those newly entering the social work field. Although we casually use the term in our profession, what exactly do we mean by "mentoring"? Eby (1997) defined the concept as follows:

There is a specific knowledge base and related skills that one uses when mentoring students, practitioners, and faculty members. In mentoring students, understanding developmental stage, assessing student capabilities, and meeting student psychosocial and educational needs are key. When mentoring colleagues or employees in the field, there is a greater focus on assisting the mentee in fulfilling work obligations, developing professional self-awareness, and learning advanced techniques for attaining effective outcomes with clients within the limitations of the agency. In an academic environment, mentoring involves helping scholars work independently and navigate the culture of academe, helping in pursuit of promotion, and developing their area of expertise to make the most influential contributions to the profession via research, service, and teaching.

As different as these types of mentorship relationships are, the qualities of a good mentor are similar. All successful mentors are selfless in the giving of their time, their nonproprietary sharing of knowledge, and their commitment to another's growth and success rather than their own. They create a trusting and supportive atmosphere. They provide encouragement at moments of disillusionment, crisis, or despair. They celebrate the accomplishments of another without self-aggrandizement. Mentors provide an outlet for their colleagues to voice their opinions without fear of retribution, to explore their ideas without fear of judgment, and to discover their strengths and limitations without fear of failure. Although the mentoring relationship fosters learning and growth for both the mentor and mentee, it is grounded in the acknowledgment of the mutually respectful relationship.

Without mentors, the pressures of social work practice, education, administration, and research could become overwhelming at best and agonizing at worst. Mentors help in making pivotal decisions in personal and professional aspects of one's career. Mentorship is clearly an art that requires a considerable amount of time and energy. Not all mentors or supervisors are good ones. And supervisors are not necessarily mentors. In fact, we have known about many supervisors who failed to inspire and ignite the fire of new supervisees and social work practitioners.

Mentors may have no direct control over one's work but, instead, may possess character traits, knowledge, or behaviors that one desires to emulate. The mentor--mentee relationship may form voluntarily without any formal structure. Good supervisors have the capacity to become mentors to those individuals they supervise. Mentoring, however, is more than providing adequate supervision to a student or an employee. It involves extending oneself and genuinely sharing those inner qualities that can assist mentees as burgeoning professionals. Mentors are not concerned about "what's in this for me"; their interest lies in assisting the mentee in becoming the best he or she can be. These mentors spend time and energy with another person for the sole purpose of ensuring the person's growth toward excellence. The exceptional mentor takes the mentoring relationship seriously and accepts the responsibility of role model and teacher in an ethically concerned manner. Good mentoring involves making mistakes and being wrong and not being afraid to discuss those errors with mentees. Mentors who have the self-confidence to share their failures can be invaluable resources to others. Mentors must also be able to manage crises that inevitably occur as mentees struggle with their own growth as individuals and professionals. They must be aware of the power they hold over their mentees and be sensitive to the position they hold in their mentees' lives. Treating mentees with the utmost respect for their hard work and desire to develop is sacrosanct. Mentees are people who work not for a mentor but, rather, beside a mentor. Being a mentor is a rewarding experience that brings fulfillment and personal growth to both individuals. Good mentoring involves knowing when to let go and allow rnentees to fly on their own. Payment for being a mentor is watching someone succeed in their work and move forward and no longer need assistance, thus modeling how a mentee can mentor others.

As the date for Dean Barbara White's retirement draws near, it has made us realize the power of her mentorship abilities. A multitude of social work professionals will be celebrating her long, outstanding career as a social work leader. As she is past-president of both NASW and the Council on Social Work Education, we would wager that an enormous number of social workers both nationally and internationally have known Dean White for her incredible leadership and advocacy skills as well as her unwavering commitment to the profession. However, we, along with a group of colleagues, have known her as our mentor. Dean White has been an intellectually gifted, insightful, and sensitive mentor over the past 18 years at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. Her contributions to the growth and development of our faculty have been inestimable. She has a unique ability to recognize her faculty members' strengths and to empower us to capitalize on our own talents and abilities. She provided us with a constant and clear vision of what we could achieve and guided us as we ascended to those heights.

From leading formal workshops at schools of social work across the country to being an ambassador of social work in countries across the globe, she has carried the mission of developing leaders devoted to transforming lives. With total commitment, she embraced the mission of our profession to fulfill the goals of "promoting social and economic justice, alleviating critical social problems, and enhancing human well-being" (University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, 2010, p. 1). Dean White has never sat down. Despite her hectic, nonstop schedule, she has always taken time to talk with us about our minor decisions and major challenges.

In addition to our professional development, teaching, research, and scholarship, she has walked side by side with us through our fears and failures as well as our successes and celebrations. She graduated our children from preschool to kindergarten in full regalia. She attended numerous weddings and baby showers. She has joined us in celebrating those who have moved through tenure and promotions and those who have accepted dean's positions at other schools. She has also helped commemorate and memorialize the lives of those who have died.

Through her leadership, she has made sure that we respect each other's assets and abilities. From the moment she became dean, she cultivated a cohesive environment and encouraged our maximum growth to our fullest potentials. For example, she instituted a practice that she called Faculty Forums, which provided an arena for the discussion of complicated and even contentious issues related to the school. She created a safe place for faculty members to share their diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives and facilitated the discussion until there was an understanding of the spectrum of views and a sense of where the school fell on the continuum of beliefs. Senior faculty members have noted that this practice has been groundbreaking and unique in their academic experience. It has allowed for true collegial relationships to be formed and augmented. This has created a genuinely professional community in which consensus is not a prerequisite to being a valued member of the faculty. Divergent thinking is valued as a vehicle for a solid and stable work environment. Ultimately, she has been so much more than our employer or our manager. She has been our mentor.

Dean White's retirement from the School of Social Work is not the end of an epoch in our history but an opportunity for each of us to pass on the knowledge and experience we have gained from knowing her. A fail-safe indicator of a great mentor is the permanent memory that is etched upon us of that enriching experience. In our case, we have learned how to mentor other students, practitioners, and colleagues. The greatest tribute to a mentor is having the ability to "pay it forward." And pay it forward we will.


Eby, L.T. (1997). Alternative forms of mentoring in changing organizational environments: A conceptual extension of the mentoring literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51, 125-144.

University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. (2010). Bylaws of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. Austin: Author.

Elizabeth C. Pomeroy, PhD, is professor and codirector of the Institute for Grief, Loss, and Family Survival and Lori Holleran Steiker, PhD, is associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station D3500, Austin, TX 78746; e-mail: bpomeroy@mail.utexas. edu or
Mentoring is an intense developmental relationship
   whereby advice, counseling and developmental
   opportunities are provided to a protege
   by a mentor, which, in turn, shapes the protege's
   career experiences.... This occurs through two
   types of support to proteges: 1) instrumental
   or career support and 2) psychosocial support.
   (p. 126)
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