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The Mentoring Chameleon - a Critical Analysis of Mentors' and Mentees' Perceptions of the Mentoring Role in Professional Education and Training Programmes for Teachers, Nurses, Midwives and Doctors

Dr Marion Jones
Peggy Nettelton
Lucy Smith

Project Team
Dr Jeremy Brown
Dr Tom Chapman
Jane Morgan

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005


During the past ten years, mentoring has been increasingly recognised as a key strategy in professional training and development programmes in education, health care, business and industry. Although the concept of mentoring is not entirely new, it is difficult to define. While frequent reference to the term ‘mentor’ in everyday practice, training manuals and policy handbooks creates the impression that a general understanding of the notion of mentoring exists, the multitude of definitions and interpretations of how it is to be performed suggests otherwise. Mentoring can thus be perceived as a ‘helping process’ (Caruso, 1990), a teaching-learning process (Ardery, 1990), as an intentional, structural, nurturing, insightful [process either developing along stages or rhythms, but not in series of events (Roberts, 2000). Bennetts (1996) adds a pedagogical, democratic dimension by stating that mentoring is learner-centred and progresses at the rate determined by the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring can thus cover a variety of activities ranging from helper functions to those of assessment. In addition, Herald (1999) lists career counselling, salary negotiations, job searches, curriculum vitae preparation and developing political savy as some of the multifarious activities to be performed by mentors. Depending on individual perceptions, the multiple purposes it serves and the various settings within which it occurs, practice remains inconsistent and idiosyncratic.

However, within the context of professional training and development, a shift of emphasis away from the personal towards the professional is evident. Current conceptualisations of mentoring prevalent in the health and education context tend to bear little resemblance to the original Greek model, according to which the mentor’s role was that of an older, trusted and loyal friend, who responsible for the growth and development of the protégé and whose characteristics were integrity, wisdom and personal involvement. The relationship was highly personal and mutually respectful. Furthermore, the standards assessment frameworks within which the training of teachers, nurses, midwives, and more recently, that of doctors, is located, requires mentors to exercise the role of assessor, which is potentially problematic in terms of conflicting loyalties.

The context of mentoring in education and health settings

Mentoring in initial training and induction of teachers

Since 1992, initial teacher training has undergone fundamental reform (DFE, 1992, 1993a; DfEE, 1997, 1998; DfEE, 2002). It is no longer planned and delivered by tutors in higher education, but through partnerships between schools and higher education institutions. With the new emphasis on training rather than education, practising teachers, acting as mentors, play a key role in the professional preparation and development of the next generation of teachers. However, the role of mentor required clarification, particularly as initial teacher training was to be standardised in terms of government defined curriculum and competences (standards) to be achieved by trainee and newly qualified teachers.

The idea of teachers operating in a kind of mentoring capacity is not entirely new, but was performed informally and was therefore highly individualistic and subjective by the mentors’ personal theories of teaching and sets of beliefs, values and practical experiences.

During the past 50 years, initial teacher education in Britain reflects a number of stages of development, each of which represents a distinct view of school-based experience in preparation for professional practice. In the 50s the ‘apprenticeship’ model prevailed, which allocated the practising teacher the role of ‘master teacher’, who conveys the rules and values of craft apprenticeship originating from the guild system to a contemporary context (Butters, 1997). Maynard and Furlong (1995:2-5) perceive its disadvantages in the potential risk to provide ‘tips for teachers’.

After the mid 80s the debate about reforming initial teacher education focused for the first time on the link between the form of training and approaches to teaching. State intervention (new contracts, prescribed curriculum, accountability) threatened the autonomy of the teaching profession, which resulted in a new set of professional values aims practice. At the same time, though, the training of new entrants to the profession was firmly placed in hands of experienced practitioners, the teachers themselves, who in their role of mentors were to play a pivotal role in the training and professional development as well as the assessment of newcomers to the profession. Accordingly, teachers, rather than teacher educators, prepare trainees towards achieving a list of pre-determined standards. Within this ‘competency model’, mentors perform the roles of trainer, assessor and gatekeeper to the profession, following a ‘technical rationalist’ approach to professional training and development (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). Its disadvantages are described as reductionist, decontextualised, and atomistic, in that teaching and learning is directed towards predetermined, narrowly defined performance criteria, which neither indicate the scope for further development, nor include any reference to the context within which they may have been achieved.

The ‘reflective model’ offers a more global perspective. It draws on insights from analytical and cognitive psychology to nurture a dialogue aimed at the growth of personal values, professional judgements and self-criticism. Consequently, developing the reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983) involves the mentor as the impersonator of wisdom, whose knowledge extends beyond the instrumental, including ethical and moral dimensions (Zeichner & Liston, 1987).

Finally, in contrast to the above, Butters (1997) offers a less definitive model, but one which shares some of the original mentoring traits reflected in the relationship that existed between Telemachus and Mentor, one in which encourages expressions of concern and feedback of experiences and allows the mentee to assert his/her own values and to negotiate learning targets in an open brief.

Mentoring in the health professions - nursing, midwifery and medicine

Mentoring is seen as falling in line with the NHS becoming a ‘learning organisation’, within which reflection is encouraged (Harbrow, 2003) and lifelong learning, one of the main components of clinical governance (Bligh, 1999) can be facilitated. A report published by SCOPME in 1998 is frequently referred to in the literature. The report identifies a need for providing professional, educational and personal support for doctors and dentists through mentoring, particularly at times of significant career transitions, from pre-registration house officer to senior house officer and at the beginning of specialist training (Bligh, 1999). Freeman’s study in general practice (1998) demonstrated that by using reflection within the mentoring context, personal learning and development was encouraged. Whether in medicine, nursing or midwifery, pre-ceptorship and mentoring can be considered to embrace the concepts of adult education and should therefore be used in a meaningful way to enhance educational programmes in the health professions. Mentoring is employed as a key strategy in professional training of nurses (Butterworth & Faugier, 1992; Jinks & Williams, 1994; Atkins & Williams, 1995; Wright, 1995; Spouse, 1996) and midwives (Ferns & Stiles, 2004; McKenzie, 2004), which is well documented in the literature.

Mentoring as supportive strategy has occurred informally for considerable time and has only recently been recognised as a distinct, integral component of professional training and development programmes. The literature suggests that the formal aspect of mentoring is particularly important for women and minorities, who have tended to be less well integrated into formal networking and mentoring systems than their male counterparts (Clutterbuck, 1991). The cultural and factors influencing the mentoring relationship is discussed by Thomas (1990), by highlighting the difficulties apparent in ethnic and cross-racial mentoring relationships in predominantly white organisations. Husain (1998), for example, looks at how mentoring could revolutionise the careers of overseas doctors. Concern has also been expressed over the predominantly paternalistic nature of mentoring models in use and the enforced dependency they encourage (SCOPME, 1998).

Purpose of this research

Against this backdrop of diversity in conceptualisation and practice, there is now a need to explore the mentoring phenomenon in greater depth by distinguishing more clearly between generic and context specific aspects of mentoring and examine how it manifests itself within different professions. By adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, this research project seeks to examine perceptions of ‘mentoring’ that exist in education and health professional programmes in England and is primarily concerned with the mentoring process and the mentor-mentee relationship. This interim report draws on data collected during Phase 1 of a two-year research project, which is concerned with the mentoring process and how it is influenced by the structural, social and cultural factors inherent in the various settings. It seeks to examine perceptions of mentoring that exist in education and health professional programmes in England and identify generic and context specific aspects of mentoring across four professional disciplines: teaching, nursing, midwifery and medicine.

Key questions

By adopting a qualitative approach, answers are sought to the following key questions:

  1. How is ‘mentoring’ conceptualised in health and education professional programmes?

  2. Which factors influence the mentor-mentee relationship in a positive/negative way?

  3. What are the typical characteristics of effective mentoring in general terms and specific to the setting?

  4. What are the professional and personal needs of the mentees?

  5. What are the training and development needs of mentors?

  6. To what extent are mentoring processes and skills transferable across the four professional groups?

Expected outcomes

It is expected that the interim report of this study will identify issues in relation to the mentoring process in the various settings and elucidate the structural and inter-personal mechanisms inherent. It is hoped that the insights gained will be of interest not only to mentors and mentees, but also to practitioners in the field as well as policymakers concerned with professional training and education programmes for teachers and health professionals, ultimately leading to the dissemination and transfer of good practice.


In accordance with the expected outcomes, i.e. mentors’ and mentees’ perceptions, experiences, values, attitudes and opinions, and the extent to which they impact on the education and training process, findings are reported from their perspectives, which firmly locates the study within a qualitative paradigm. Sensitivity to a grounded theory approach is adopted wherever possible in order to minimise the potential of bias generated by researchers’ prior assumptions and value judgements, which can lead to limitations in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data.


To facilitate ease of access the sample of 1200 respondents is purposive, consisting of mentors and mentees who are involved in professional education programmes in collaboration with Edge Hill College of Higher Education. Each of the four disciplines involved is represented by a sub-sample of postgraduate PGCE (Professional Certificate in Education) primary and secondary trainee teachers, postgraduate trainee doctors (Pre-Registration House Officers) in their first year, year 2/3 pre-registration DipHE/BSc nursing students, year 3 pre-registration DipHE Midwifery students and mentors in the four respective areas. Although a convenience sampling may not satisfy the conventional quality criteria for rigorous research, the sample size and ease of access facilitated through using a convenience sample were considered to enhance the validity of data generated.

Ethical approval

Unlike educational projects, which are subject to the Edge Hill Ethics Code of Practice, all research conducted with staff or patients within the health service requires ethical approval. Four hospitals (Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Aintree Hospital NHS trusts, The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool Womens Hospital)ospital)Hospital) were involved, each with its own research committee, requiring COREC form, information sheets for participants on trusted head paper, approval protocol, consent form, questionnaire and proposed interview schedule. Approval from all ethics committees was finally received August 2004, which equated to a 6 months delay regarding the distribution of the medical questionnaires. As a result, the originally agreed data collection schedule had to be amended.

The participation in this project was entirely voluntary and based on informed consent. All participants, mentors and mentees alike, were assured of their anonymity and confidentiality of data and were free to withdraw from the project at any stage, if they wished.

Data collection

By drawing on a relatively large sample it is the intention to generate data that can claim to be of generalisable value. Data collection takes place across two distinct phases. In Phase 1 (Preliminary Phase), the initial sample of 600 mentors and mentees respectively were asked to complete semi-structured questionnaires, which serve to facilitate the identification of key patterns and issues within the specific mentoring contexts to be explored in greater depth in Phase 2 (Conclusive Phase). On the basis of a preliminary matrix generated from the questionnaire data, particular cases will be selected for in-depth study, employing a qualitative approach by means of semi-structured, face-to-face, recorded interviews.

The following table provides information on the number of questionnaires distributed and returned by mentors and mentees in the four disciplines.

To ensure maximum number of questionnaire completion by mentees, distribution and collection took place during face-to-face training meetings/seminars. In the case of the mentors postal distribution was used. Out of the four professional groups the doctors emerged as the most challenging in that they required repeated reminders to provide relevant data. One possible explanation could be found in their busy work schedule. Another is perhaps attributable to the fact that ‘mentoring’ employed as a formal support mechanisms in the professional training of doctors is a relatively new concept, one which could be perceived as being at odds with the medical profession’s traditional belief in autonomous practice. As a result, data collection and analysis for the sample of doctor mentors has not yet been completed.

This paper will therefore focus primarily on the quantitative and qualitative data relating to the mentoring role as perceived by the mentees, i.e. trainee teachers, pre-registration nurses, student midwives and trainee doctors. However, a brief summary of the quantitative data collected from teacher, nurse and midwifery mentors, reflecting their perceptions of their role, is also included.

In the health sector, research on mentoring in medical education programmes has largely been conducted in the field of nursing (Cooper, 1990; Spouse, 1996; Watson, 1999); Northcott, 2000), although more recent studies are drawing attention to the importance of mentoring for training doctors (Grainger, 2002; Dean, 2003; MacDonald, 2004). But the variables across settings make objective assessment of the effectiveness of such activities exceedingly difficult (Okere & Naim, 2001). Critical reviews of the literature have identified several deficiencies in the research, including small sample sizes, impressionistic views, anecdoctal findings and results based on assumed rather than actual measures of mentoring (Koberg et al, 1994).

Presentation of findings

The percentage scores presented in the diagrams below indicate the frequency of citings of specific aspects of the mentoring role, which mentees and mentors respectively perceive to be the most important. Participants were asked to select the relevant items from a given list and were provided with the opportunity to add any further aspects not included.

Mentors’ perceptions mentoring role – the most important aspects

As mentioned earlier, the data relating to doctor mentors are not available. However, the following three diagrams displaying perceptions of mentors working with trainee teachers, -re-registration nurses and student midwives can give a preliminary indication of how mentors in the respective professional groups define the mentoring role. While teachers perceive themselves predominantly in the ‘adviser’ role, nurse mentors stress the importance of acting as ‘model’, ‘teacher’ and ‘supporter’, while in midwifery, mentoring is strongly associated with the process of ‘facilitation’ and ‘teaching’.

Mentees’ perceptions of the mentoring role – the most important aspects

In comparison to the mentors’ responses, the data generated from the mentees’ responses are equally interesting in the way in which they reveal commonalities and divergencies across the four professional disciplines as well as across mentors and mentees.

Mentees’ perceptions across the four disciplines - teaching, nursing, midwifery and medicine

In teaching, the role of ‘adviser’ is also considered a very important aspect of training, although the mentees seem to attach an almost equal degree of importance to ‘being supported’, which their mentors seem to regard as being of a lower priority. This perception correlates to some extent with doctor mentees who also value their mentors’ advisory capacity, but in addition cite the role aspect of ‘supervisor’ above ‘supporter’ in contrast to the trainee teachers. Conversely, pre-registration nurses and student midwives appear to perceive their mentors not in a predominantly advisory capacity, but perceive them as ‘teachers’ and ‘supporters’.

Mentees’ and mentors’ perceptions

While in teaching, mentors and mentees identified the role of ‘adviser’ as the most important mentoring role, they seem to differ in relation to ‘supporter’. While in mentors’ perception this role aspect appears to be of lesser priority, mentees seem to consider it highly important. The need to be supported is also reflected in nurse and midwifery mentees, who allocated it second most important position after the role of ‘teacher’. The correlation between their perceptions and those of the mentors are closely related, in that the mentors perceive themselves in the role of ‘teacher’, although in nursing the aspect of providing a ‘model’ and, in midwifery the aspect of ‘facilitator’ range even slightly higher.

While in teaching, mentors and mentees agree on the role of ‘adviser’, in nursing and midwifery, it is the role of ‘teacher’. Although on the one hand these findings suggest a difference in the level of autonomy and independence expected by trainees in the three professions, on the other they all cite ‘supporter’ as the second most important mentor role. With regard to medicine, the complete set of data has not yet been collected and is therefore not available for presentation in this paper.

In addition to the quantitative data regarding aspects of the mentoring role, mentees were asked to respond to the following question ‘If you were able to select your own mentor which characteristics, qualities, skills would you look for?’

Nursing mentees wanted mentors to be friendly (1st), approachable (2nd), supportive (3rd) and knowledgeable (4th), which is illustrated by the following selected comments ( in rank order of frequency of citing):

If I was to select my own mentor, qualities I would look for in a person would be an approachable, friendly person with knowledge and the experience to back up the knowledge. (55)

A genuinely friendly, open-minded motivator who is approachable and able to give constructive feedback. Someone who understands my capabilities as a student and is able to encourage/help build up my confidence in developing the skills I need. (108)

Similarly, midwifery mentees cited friendly, knowledgeable and approachable, supplying the following comments:

A good teacher who will let you do tasks and supervise. Friendly personality makes you feel at ease. Someone who is genuinely interested in helping you progress and learn. (1)

The mentor would be friendly, approachable, supportive and offer guidance and be knowledgeable in their field of work. (22)

Teaching mentees wished for a supportive (1st), approachable (2nd) and friendly (4th) mentor who would also act in an advisory capacity (3rd).

Someone who was readily available and easy to contact, who is accessible. Someone who truly listens. Someone who gives emotional and practical support when required. Someone who gives detailed, clear advice and guidance. (234)

I would want somebody who was approachable, friendly, would offer support and advice and who I could work with comfortably. (239)

Friendly, approachable, willing to let you make mistakes so that you can learn from them. Not critical – entirely supportive and constructive. (288)

Doctor mentees cited approachable (1st), must be a good adviser (2nd) and teacher (3rd), in other words,

Someone who understands me and therefore knows how to get the best out of me. (8)

Able to make me feel enthusiastic and optimistic about future outlook, and give me advice in difficult situation. (23)

Willingness to train, gives good advice and evaluation of work, providing adequate feedback for future placements, approachable. ( 69)

As can be seen from the above information, there were areas of significant overlap as well as difference apparent across the four professions as well as mentees and mentors. With regard to the latter, one commonality bore an element of surprise, namely that of ‘assessor’. With the aim of improving quality of service, the training of teachers, nurses, midwives and doctors has been located firmly within a national standards framework, which serves as reference point for target setting, monitoring of progress and assessment. In this respect mentors are allocated the role of ‘assessor’. Surprisingly, however, this role aspect was consistently allocated low priority by mentees in all four professional disciplines and by mentors in teaching, nursing and midwifery. It remains to be seen whether the data collected from doctor mentors coincide with this pattern.

Themes emerging for discussion and further investigation

There is no doubt that in view of the preliminary findings of this study, the different guises of mentoring have become apparent in the individual perceptions presented by mentors and mentees, reflecting commonalities and divergencies across the four professional disciplines. In an attempt to construct a generic contextualisation of mentoring as well as map context specific attributes of mentoring across teaching, nursing, midwifery and medicine, it is intended that overarching as well as context specific aspects of the mentoring process and the mentoring role can be identified. Given the multiple contexts and the subjective experiences of the mentoring within them, a phenomenological is deemed appropriate, as there is no ‘single animal called mentoring’, rather a group of tasks associated with the role (Roberts, 2000:162).

So far, the findings suggests that within each professional discipline different aspects of the mentoring role are allocated varying degrees of importance by mentors and mentees. In an attempt to explain the similarities and differences reflected in the participants’ responses, it will be necessary to explore the way in which mentors’ and mentees’ experiences and perceptions are influenced across the four professions. Any conclusions drawn at this early stage of the research can only claim to be of a tentative nature and will require further more in-depth investigation. The following areas have been identified as possible sources of influence: the different nature of the respective work environment, preferred learning strategies employed by mentors and mentees in the respective disciplines and the professional values and beliefs that underpin practice in teaching, nursing, midwifery and medicine.

The work environment

The structure of the school environment often promotes a culture of isolation that is pervasive in the teaching professions (Bubb & Earley, 2004), particularly where teachers still act as ‘gatekeepers to their isolated kingdoms (1992, Fullan & Hargreaves, 1992:62). This may provide an explanation to trainee teachers’ high citation of the role of ‘supporter’ in contrast to their mentors. A similar discrepancy became apparent in the data generated by midwifery mentors and mentees. While the trainee midwives rated the aspect of ‘support’ very highly, their mentors perceived themselves predominantly as ‘facilitator’, ‘teacher’ and ‘model’., which may be a reflection of the complexity of their work, involving a wide range of settings in the community and hospital and liaison with multiple agencies (hence ‘facilitator’), while at the same time the aspect of duty of care is paramount (hence ‘teacher’ and ‘model’). Unfortunately, the doctor mentors’ data are not available at this point of the investigation.

Professional values

Trainee teachers’ and trainee doctors’ perceptions of their mentors performing predominantly an advisory rather than a teaching/modelling role, may be due to the fact that, particularly in the early stages of their training, they feel the need to be seen by their pupils and patients as ‘real’ teachers and doctors. To be perceived as a true professional is closely linked to trainees’ endeavour to establish themselves in a position of unchallenged autonomy, trust and respect. And yet, on the other hand, bestowed prematurely, these tokens of professional status can generate anxiety and fear of failure, particularly when trainees feel they have been thrown in at the deep end and are anxious to survive (Furlong & Maynard, 1995). This could also explain the trainee teachers’ high citation score of the mentor’s role as ‘supporter’, unlike their counterparts in medicine, who appeared to allocate this aspect lesser priority.

Nevertheless, trainee doctors also cited ‘advisor’ as one of the mentor’s most important roles, which could be interpreted as a reflection of a professionalism that respects the autonomy and status of each of its members, but at the same time relies on the dissemination and sharing of expert knowledge with the aim of advancing medical practice. Conversely, the nursing and midwifery profession has traditionally been highly regulated concomitant with the requirement of ‘duty of care’ towards the patients. In view of the serious consequences that can arise from incompetence and malpractice, mentees in nursing and midwifery may attach even greater value to ‘being taught’ and ‘emulating models of good practice’ than their counterparts in teaching and medicine.

Learning strategies

Trainee teacher are encouraged to develop their professional competence not merely by emulating experienced and accomplished practitioners, but by learning through experience with the aim of developing into reflective practitioners (Schön, 1983). Although the strategies employed in this endeavour incorporate emulating good practice, but, to a large extent, also include learning by ‘trial and error’ and ‘following one’s instinct’ (Hayes, 1999; Jones, 2005). Consultation with mentors usually takes place prior to teaching a lesson and is followed by critical evaluation, which will subsequently inform planning.

In health care, this approach is inappropriate for obvious reasons. Although the aspect of duty of care applies to all four professional contexts, minimising or eliminating the potential for errors is imperative in the health professions, which may explain the high priority nursing and midwifery mentees attached to the aspect of ‘model’ and ‘teacher’. Trainee doctors appear to allocate these two role aspects a lower priority than nursing mentees. And yet, they rate the role of ‘supervisor’ as the second most important, which indicates that the aspect of monitoring performance is indeed present, but as pointed out by Eraut (2003), the shift in focus from a ‘provider-centred’ to a ‘learner-centred’ concept of continuing professional education is gradually changing the ethos of training in postgraduate medical education. Accordingly, ‘the popular conception of the quivering trainee working for a tyrannical consultant’ no longer applies (Rogstad & Talbot, 2001:77).


In an attempt to explain the variations apparent in the four settings, any conclusions drawn at this stage of the investigation would be premature and highly unreliable, affecting the validity of the research. These are only preliminary findings of an interim report, which are to be treated with caution and warrant further in-depth investigation. It is intended that the data generated through follow-up interviews will provide valuable data to inform the discussion of emergent issues in relation to the themes identified above.


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Dr Marion Jones (Joint Project Leader)
Faculty of Education, Community and Leisure
Liverpool John Moores University
Tel: 01512315277

Dr Jeremy Brown
Edge Hill College of Higher Education
Tel : 01695 58

Peggy Nettleton
Edge Hill College of Higher Education

Lucy Smith
Edge Hill College of Higher Education

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 03 October 2005