Last October we had an opportunity to interview Dr. Joanne Robinson. Robinson knows something about cross cultural mentoring. For the past few years she has been coaching and mentoring instructional leaders in countries likewise, Peru, China, Kuwait, Egypt and Australia. Her mission is to facilitate the development of exemplary school leadership for student success.
MM: How does mentoring show up in different cultures?
JR: In Ontario, it is connected to the reform agenda currently underway and in schools it operates from the seat of principal or vice principal. In other countries we help them understand effective leadership and work with them to support growth through mentoring. In the Middle East and various parts of Asia, for example, where they have very traditional educational settings, mentoring is hierarchical and authoritarian based. Mentors are someone who is known, and for the most part they are told they will work with others. In countries that have not moved that agenda forward so much, where education is linear and Socratic, their mentoring capacity gets sidetracked into hierarchical relationships.
MM: How do class distinctions get played out? Gender? Race? Sexual orientation?
JR: In Ontario we match according to perceived or self-perceived areas of needs, specifically in regard to leadership skills and competencies. Other considerations are not openly considered or drawn in as a factor because of the equity and inclusion philosophy of our Province. We insist on a no-fault exit strategy when mentoring relationships are struggling. In the in Middle East, gender differences are an issue. Women are very sensitive about whom they can have conversations with. They can only speak to their Bay'ah. There are no coed schools in these countries. In the public domain gender is a big issue. For the most part racial distinction or sexual orientation is not on their radar screen.
MM: How might an initial mentoring conversation look different across cultures?
JR: The differences lie in who initiates the mentoring relationship and who sets the agenda. In Asia, for example, the initial phases would take more time. Understanding the context and getting to know the person unfolds over time. Traditional cultures and norms is embedded in society and the school system and it is important that any new initiatives work within this context
MM: Where is the most support needed - depending on culture?
JR: You need to pay attention to the timeframe of the mentoring relationship, particularly in some cultures where relationship is the pivotal part of the culture. Mentoring takes place over a longer period of time. Another thing that is important is what goes on meta-cognitively. By that I mean, thinking about thinking. A mentor needs to understand that people make decisions differently depending on how they think and the context from which their thinking originates.
MM: What do people you work with see as stumbling blocks?
JR: In my experience, resistance to change shows up time and time again where there is a lack of understanding about why change is needed. Often there is unclear understanding of the vision of where we are trying to go or why we are trying to move forward. I also find that people in traditional school environments have a different mindset that doesn't take into account differentiation - differentiation in staff, students and in parents.
MM: So what key messages about cross cultural mentoring would be important to share with our readers?
JR: First, the structures that go with an effective mentoring program have to be clearly understood and focused, in order to have a successful outcome. Second, mentoring is not about focusing on our differences but on our similarities, our common focus. I would summarize it as sharing and breaking down the barriers that keep us apart.