So far, we’ve looked at participating in communities of practice from a competitive and a cooperative point of view. But now, let’s turn our attention to those who decide to mentor within communities of practice, those who share their knowledge and their experience. As was the case with competition and cooperation, there’s a light and a dark side here as well. What? How can that be? Isn’t sharing knowledge and teaching others a good thing? Well…yes and no. It really depends on why the person assumed the mentor role to begin with.
Some people become mentors within a community of practice because they love the craft and want to help bring up the quality of the craft. What actually inspired this series of posts was a Facebook post by costume designer Yaya Han, who started out, and is still very active, in the cosplay community. About halfway down the post, Han addresses the cosplay community as a whole, trying to address negative feelings and opinions splitting the community. She makes the point that each cosplayer is different in their approach and how they prefer to work, and it doesn’t make any of them less of a cosplayer. She goes on to talk about the need to bring the community skill level up as a whole through positive critique, encouragement, and recognition of personal achievement or growth. She’s spot on. Han was one of the cosplayers followed in Heroes of Cosplay (which strangely enough is not how I came to learn about the post), and you could see how she lives her own words through encouraging fellow cosplayers, and being willing to be a supportive, nondestructive ear when a fellow cosplayer wants to bounce ideas off her. If the show portrayed her accurately, she comes across as a bit of a mother hen, making sure her little chicks are all fine, and becoming concerned when one of them clearly isn’t. She tries to create a environment where other cosplayers can safely grow and foster their own skills and interests.
Others become mentors and teachers because they see Teacher as the Expert in the room, the voice of Authority. (Yes, those words deliberately capitalized.) We’ve all met at least one of these over the course of our schooling – someone who went into the teaching profession because they want to be needed in a way they never were before they stepped into the teacher role, and still aren’t outside of their teaching role. They’re the ones who clearly didn’t go into teaching because they love sharing knowledge or helping others develop their skills. Their self-esteem is just too low for that, and it shows in their teaching. These are the mentors who can tell you all about this one awesome project they did several years ago (which may or may not relate to the craft being practiced at the moment), but haven’t tried to do anything recently, generally have outdated knowledge and connections, and can’t demonstrate or explain to save their little souls. It’s a very destructive environment for the students, potentially driving out those who don’t realize they could just shift to a different mentor.
For those who do assume a mentoring mantle as part of their practice (or who are considering it), becoming a mentor within a community of practice is worthwhile…if you do it correctly and for the right reasons. Becoming known as a mentor is one clear way to establish a reputation because you are constantly exhibiting your knowledge and skills as you’re helping others learn. People can see what you know and how you present it, and they’ll know in the future why you’re worth turning to for help. But because you’re in contact with the newcomers, you get to learn from the experiences they bring with them, broadening your own knowledge base and allowing you to become familiar with what each newcomer brings to the craft. And because you have this reputation for being knowledgeable and skilled, you get to know other people across the community, which puts you in a great position. You can connect people at various levels of the community when certain knowledge and skills are needed, and you know who to approach when you’re building your own team…two abilities that add to your reputation.
Mentoring is fun and rewarding, a great role for anyone who loves to learn and play. But if you go into it for the wrong reasons, you’re doing a lot more harm than good.