Buddies, Coaches and Mentors



Buddies, Coaches and Mentors

*    Buddies help you to find your way around

*   Coaches help you to develop your skills and abilities

*   Mentors help you to achieve your dreams


University College London’s Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme

For some years, UCL has had a buddying scheme whose origins lay in the idea of helping students new to UCL to find their way around. From being able to find physical facilities, to knowing who to ask for what, to making use of UCL’s systems, someone in their second year was appointed to provide help to those who had just joined. One can imagine that the skilful player soon found more ways of using their buddy, for instance to suss out opportunities, to learn about the strengths and foibles of individual members of staff, to discovering how to break the rules with impunity. Others discovered that advantages accrued to those who were in the same School or even better who were reading the same subject. They could make use of their buddies to learn about what individual professors valued or required, what topics they would need to work on, even what essays they might have to write. With even more skill they might get access to comparable essays written by their buddy or his/her colleagues, especially perhaps those that had been well received by the Professor.


Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?

In a recent edition of the New Yorker, a top-notch surgeon tells about how he came to make use of a coach and what it did for him.

He gives three reasons why he gave thought to the idea of having a coach: first, by his own metrics he felt that until recently he had been steadily improving; but not lately. And he had wondered whether steady decline was his future, inevitable lot. Secondly, he was impressed that other people at the top of their tree used coaches: he read about famous football coach Walter Camp, famous Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins and Juilliard violin teacher DeLay; he spoke to singer Renee Fleming (‘vocalists have voice coaches throughout their careers’) and to violinist Itzak Perlman (whose coach is his wife) and he was impressed by the role of coaches as ‘outside ears and eyes’ (‘what [performers] perceive is often quite different to what audiences perceive’. [Tim Gallwey in ‘The Inner Game of Music’ talks about the primary importance of raising awareness]). And he spoke to Jim Knight, the Director of the Kansas University’s Kansas Coaching Project with its record of enhancing learning through training coaches about the roles that coaches play.

Jim Knight had talked to him about how coaches help people to identify weaknesses – by showing what respected colleagues do, by reviewing videos, or by simple conversation.  He watched coaches ‘working through the fine points of the observation’ – what went well and what went less well, ‘parcelling out their observations carefully’; and ‘formulating plans for what [a teacher] could practice next’, for example, breaking down contents more, engaging individuals, helping pairs of students to have a useful conversation.

He decided to try a coach. He called a retired surgeon whom we knew well and respected highly. After the first operation his new coach offered some observations about details, but important details, such as positioning in the operating theatre, about where and how he stood, and about things that he, as pre-occupied by the processes of the surgery, had not been aware of (the operating light drifting out of the wound). He takes the observations of his coach, works on them for a few weeks then gets together with him again. The scope of their work together now extends to the planning of the operation; and he watches other surgeons (and videos of them at work) – some-times surgeons using leading-edge techniques in other fields, in order to gather ideas about what he could do.

He suggests that the benefits of the three or four hours he has spent each month with his coach added more to his capabilities than all of the expenditure that his hospital has made on upgrading surgical equipment. He adds that they could be significantly greater than the costs that result from lower success rates; and he asks why it is that there are so many fields where coaching is unimaginable.

A crucial test of the relationship was one discussion about an operation that did not go well. They started by discussing what had gone well, and then went on to what had not gone so well. They identified a difficulty he had had, what he did about it and what he might have done differently. He is forced to recognise that the price of making smarter decisions is: exposure; [though there was a recent report of a heart surgeon, who, recognising that only good results were published in medical journals, founded his own group of surgeons (‘Pete’s Club’) who met annually to impart to each other lessons learned from their failures].  But to discover that your surgeon has a coach, suggests the author of this article, might not seem to reassure your patients!

A radical mentoring scheme that matches up master with younger talent and acts as a seed-bed of innovation

This new and unusual mentoring scheme has several radical elements:

*  it matches up young and old;

*  it crosses all sorts of boundaries;

*  it works in several genres all at the same time; and

*  it’s field is the arts.

Now in its fourth year, this programme appoints senior artists in six genres, music, literature, visual arts, theatre, dance and film – and matches them up with a younger practitioner, often from far across continents and cultural divides. It allows the pairs to work together in any way they choose: there is nor requirement for an end-product or performance and no prescribed schedule or methodology. The brief is very loose, and the pairs find their own ways of working together. No specific output is required during the mentoring year but the sponsor does provide funding for the protégés to continue their work together after the programme is over.

Clearly inspiration travels in both directions. “I was getting tired of myself” said the brilliant and controversial director Peter Sellars. “Meeting this lady” – he gestures affectionately towards his protégé, Maya Zbib from Beirut – “has been so important to me”. Zbib took Sellars on an eye-opening trip to Lebanon, to experience work by her six-person collective Zoukak, which makes politically fuelled theatre in refugee camps, in private homes and in other spaces. He took her to watch him work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“I wanted to make Beirut seem peaceful!”) and in Chicago, where he was staging Handel’s opera Hercules. In this version, the conquering hero is transformed into a US general returning from Iraq, to the battleground of a home in which he can’t speak of what he has seen.

Over the past decade, the Mentor and Protégé initiative has also yielded some unexpected results, particularly in creating a broad informal network of professional personal and artistic contacts through keeping in touch with past participants, and via the many panels of advisers and selectors around the world.

An arts week-end marks the culmination of this biennial Mentoring and Protégé programme, where unlikely combinations of artists crossed over into new fields, spoke with new tongues and improvised together – a collection of ‘impossible’ scenes.

(FT: 19.11.11, and www.rolexmentor-protégé.com)

Afterword; how to get a Nobel Prize It was once reckoned that more than half of all American Nobel Prize winners had worked as graduate students, postdocs, or junior colleagues of other Nobel laureates. (Apprentice to Genius, Robert Kanigel, John Hopkins University Press, 1993.)

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