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The Importance of Mentoring

By Jessica Hulcy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #21, 1998.

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Jessica Hulcy


Recently, I bought the book The Great Christian Revolution by Otto Scott. I have only read the six-page forward to the book, yet that alone was enough to make the purchase worthwhile. Otto Scott tells how, as a 13-year-old boy, he lived with his parents in the Copa Cabana Hotel in Rio. Not a bad place to live when you are a 13-year-old boy! Scott enjoyed surfing, swimming, and reading mounds of fiction novels. Scott's father determined his son needed more education, so he hired a young Cambridge man to tutor his son. At their first meeting, the tutor handed Scott a book, then told him to read it and report back in a week, which Scott dutifully did. At that point, the tutor asked, "Did you like the book?" Scott answered, "Yes." "Why?" asked the tutor. Scott had never been asked "why," nor did he realized he had the right to dispute a non-fiction book. The tutor proceeded to demolish the book; "It was a foolish book, a boring book, a worthless book." Then the tutor elaborated why.

Scott recognized this had been a test which he had miserably failed. The tutor actually expected the student to evaluate what he had read! Scott purposed that he would not fail again. When next they met, Scott boldly gave reasons for his answers. The tutor nodded his head, and pressed Scott, "Have you thought of this? Or that?" Scott had not, but he continued to argue, feebly. For the first time, the tutor smiled at his student. True tutoring had begun.

This famed "tutorial method of Oxford and Cambridge" - in which students were "stretched and not stifled," encouraged to react and not regurgitate, required to think and not parrot - had in centuries past been reserved for kings, princes, and nobility. Today, however, Scott points out that homeschoolers use the tutorial method widely. But there is something beyond Oxford's tutorial method. Ratcheting to a higher level, one finds mentorship.

While the tutorial method and mentorship have the similarity of being one-on-one, teacher to student, there are distinct differences between the two. A tutor is a teacher, who through a casual relationship, instructs in head knowledge by posing and answering questions for the student. A mentor, on the other hand, is a model who, through an intimate relationship, shares himself and gives counsel by asking thought-provoking questions concerning issues of heart and soul. True, the mentor and the tutor both dialogue about issues, but what is taught, the subjects that are talked about, the questions that are posed, and the relationship that is being built reside on a different level.

Mentors Model

A successful unit study fosters learning by branching out into many different areas. Likewise, parents as mentors foster learning by branching out into many areas of leadership; not just by tutoring, but by shaping character and challenging and counseling their children.

Knowing that mentors are models is frightening. This means that children model themselves after their parents! If parents yell... children will model yelling. This should intimidate any parent.

But the truth remains that we are models for our children... with all of our good, bad, and ugly behavior. Fortunately, the Lord uses cracked pots for His glory all the time. He is going to use you and me, fallible as we are.

Mentors Share

Mentors share their hearts with their children. My father shared his excitement about life and his love of learning with his children. I remember that my sisters and I were always so embarrassed by our father on family trips, especially at national parks or museums. Long after the park ranger had finished his presentation, Daddy would corner him and pepper him with questions.

When I became a parent, my childhood embarrassment changed to exact emulation of my father. Recently, I took my children to an exhibit of the painter El Greco at the art museum. I had read extensively about the exhibit, so I led my children around to each painting, explaining all I knew. I noticed a little man - wearing a Ben Hogan hat, toting an umbrella, and carrying a raincoat over his arm - following us, along with his wife. When we got to the end of the exhibit and I quit talking, the little man said to me, "Well, what about this next painting? You're not going to stop the tour, are you?" Startled, I turned around and replied, "I'm not the docent. I do not work here." He retorted, "Well, it doesn't matter to me, you're doing a great job. What's your opinion on this painting?" I have grown up to share not only with my children, but with strangers, too!

Mentors Build Relationships

Young people hunger after relationships. Many fathers struggle to make enough money to take their children to Disneyland, when really all their children want to do is spend time with their fathers at Taco Bell.

I love the story told by John Trent about the father who takes his daughter to breakfast and proceeds to tell her how much he loves her. As he holds her hand, he says to her, "You know, darling, if they put all the little girls in the world in a line, your Mommy and I would choose you every time." He squeezes her hand, then starts to draw his own hand back as he mentally pats himself on the back thinking, "I did that well," but his daughter grips his hand and says, "Longer, Daddy, longer." Children hunger for a relationship with their parents.

Mentors Give Wise Counsel

I counseled my son Jason that if he found himself in a group of boys who were getting ready to do something wrong, he could influence the direction of the group by suggesting an alternate course, proceed to take that course himself, and usually the group would follow his lead. This counsel worked well in Boy Scouts.

One day, however, Jason was asked to go to a neighbor boy's movie birthday party. We Hulcys were known to approve only movies the late Mother Teresa would view. We approved the movie, and the parents, unbeknownst to us, took the five boys to the four-screen theater and dropped them off. After the parents left, the boys turned to Jason and said, "We're not going to see the original movie. We are going to an R-rated movie." Jason informed the boys that he was not allowed to see R-rated movies and tried to persuade them to attend the approved movie as planned. When the boys would not listen to him, Jason proceeded to go to the original movie by himself, while the other boys viewed the R-rated movie. When he came home, he told us, "This idea of yours is not working. I tried to lead the boys, but they would not follow." To which I replied, "True; they do not always follow, but they will never forget your stand." Mentors must continually give wise counsel to their children.

Mentors Ask Challenging Questions

Mentors ask deep, thought-provoking questions that help shape the worldview of their students. Many homeschoolers want to buy shrink-wrapped, video-taught Worldview 101. But worldviews do not come so packaged. They are hammered out piece by piece during family discussions around the kitchen table or conversations in the car.

While writing the KONOS History of the World: Medieval Times for high-school students, I decided to include a study of Thomas Aquinas. What eternal good is accomplished by students learning that Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk who lived about a.d. 1200? The point students should know is that Thomas Aquinas was the first theologian to apply Aristotle's reasoning to theology to support it. Yet as time passed, philosophers saw a conflict between theology and reason, instead of support. Francis Schaeffer described the relationship between theology and reason as a mathematical fraction, with theology as the numerator and reason as the denominator. Schaeffer says that reason got bigger and bigger, becoming completely autonomous and unrelated to theology, until reason finally ate up theology. I asked my students, "Was Aquinas wrong to introduce reason? Why would God give you a mind if he does not want you to reason? Are we supposed to mix faith and reason?" To these open-ended questions, I seek well-reasoned answers that shape my children's worldview. True, the answer to questions is important, but equally important is the process that fosters reasoning and builds relationships.

Grasp the Opportunity

The opportunity to truly mentor our children and not merely tutor them is within the grasp of homeschoolers. Sadly, however, many relinquish this role to co-ops, videos, classes, tutors, and the Internet. I personally use all of these tools to teach my children, yet fear these tools are becoming no longer a supplement but a replacement for the mentoring teacher in the homeschooling movement as a whole. Homeschoolers should tighten their grip on mentorship, teaching their children in a way once reserved for princes and nobility.


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