Going Back to School With A Reverse Mentor

It wasn’t the few gray hairs that popped up or the fine lines hugging my eyes that made me feel a bit old. Nope. That first tinge of old-ladyness came when I realized that I needed a reverse mentor.

I’m a university professor well over the age of 20, but I spend my days teaching hundreds of 20-somethings. Recently, I began to realize that this age gap can create a barrier of understanding between me and my students, and sometimes it hinders my ability to fully reach them. I found that I could no longer rely solely on my personal reflections about what I was like when I was 20 (Amazon had just launched, and texting didn’t even exist back then). As a teacher who hopes to positively impact her students, it is crucial for me to figure out how I can most effectively relate to them.

Instead of searching for a seasoned professional who could share wise words of wisdom that she had accumulated over 30 years, I needed a reverse mentor who had little to no professional experience, but could offer rich personal insights into the world of her generation.

What is a reverse mentor?

Reverse mentoring is similar to traditional mentoring, but with a twist. It is a type of mentoring where a younger, less seasoned person mentors the older and more experienced person. This can be a useful tool to increase knowledge and skills for workplaces and organizations that have a higher percentage of older employees. Older employees can benefit from learning about typically youth-driven topics like technology and social media while helping younger employees to feel more connected to the organization and potentially stay in their positions longer.

For me, this looked like asking some of my 20-something-year-old students to be my reverse mentors and to school me on some important topics related to my job.  We had four, one-hour meetings during which they taught me about how students interact with university technology, which social media platforms are the most popular, what their lives are like outside of the classroom, and how best to communicate with students given all their commitments and distractions.

hands together

In hindsight, I feel kinda silly that reverse mentoring made me feel so old. After all, I am now better equipped to empathize with my students, which makes my teaching much more effective.  I also know that I will continue to need my reverse mentors to keep me up to date in my profession throughout the course of my career. Reverse mentoring was probably one of the smartest things I’ve done for my career.

Tips for having a reverse mentor

If reverse mentoring seems like something you might want to try, here are a few things to consider when working with a reverse mentor.

1)     Set expectations.  All mentoring relationships can benefit from some solid ground rules.  That way, both parties will feel fulfilled and know when things are or are not working out. Set some guidelines about when you will meet, how long the meetings will be and what you will discuss.  Also, discuss how many times or how many months you anticipate that you will meet. You may want to set a time limit initially—six months or so—and then re-evaluate at that time.

2)     Demonstrate that you value your reverse mentor’s knowledge and experience. It can be intimidating for a younger person to mentor an older person. You may have years of experience and wisdom, but really you want to know about her knowledge. Ask for her opinion and to share her perspective on certain situations. Consider how what she is sharing can be applied and share how it is useful to you. This will help ease the conversation if needed.

3)     If possible, treat your reverse mentor to lunch or coffee when you meet.  It is important to show that you value your reverse mentor’s time and input. A little gesture like this will show you appreciate everything this person is doing for you

4)     Most importantly, really listen. Sometimes it’s easy to let “been-there-done-that” thinking completely interfere when you’re talking to a reverse mentor, but it is important to put all of that aside. Listen as though you know nothing about the topic at hand, because chances are you don’t know as much as you think you do! Take notes and write any thoughts down immediately using a small notebook or even a cocktail napkin. Be present and soak up all your brilliant, young reverse mentor has to offer.

Looking for other ways to learn from young people?

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Marcella Gonsalves is wife, mom, program planner, writer, teacher, coach and people developer.  When she is not helping people or organizations achieve their goals, she loves to drink a good espresso, talk about nutrition, or even take a kickboxing class or two. She has a diverse educational background with a bachelor of arts in journalism, master of public health and is nearly finished with a doctorate in educational leadership and management. Check out her LinkedIn profile for more details.

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