I have met some excellent, dedicated mentors since I’ve been doing my research for my PhD. However, reading the storm of comments in response to the Nursing Times articles on mentors “failing to fail” makes me think they are exceptions rather than the rule.
I would prefer to believe that they are representative of the majority.
All my mentors were very different in their approach, but fundamentally they really cared about their students, their patients and the profession. They were driven by desires to shape students into caring, reliable and resourceful colleagues and to ensure that excellent nursing practice continues long after they themselves have retired from nursing. They fully understood what was at stake if they wrongly allowed a student to pass, but they were also sensitive to what was at stake for the student by failing them. This is an unenviable balancing act.
We are in danger of underestimating the skills and demands of mentoring. We may be familiar with the Nursing and Midwifery Council lists of mentor standards and competencies, but they do not really do justice to the complexities of the mentor role. There are many things to take into account. If you were to consider the transitions of students between the different learning environments, this alone places complex challenges upon mentors.
Mentors see only a fragment of the student’s learning journey and have to imagine where and how it fits into the whole. They experience a succession of students entering and leaving their workplace and witness each student’s ability to adapt and function in that microcosm of practice. To varying degrees, they put what they see in context of the student’s biography, previous clinical experience and aspirations for learning, depending also on what the student chooses to reveal about themselves. Balancing all these factors, they must make a judgement as to whether the student should progress to the next stage.
A list of competencies is a pale representation of the real world. Yet, student nurses in all their variety of personalities, backgrounds, future ambitions and learning trajectories need to shape themselves into this mould, and be seen to have done it, in order to be deemed competent. It should come as no surprise then when mentors are seen to give students the “benefit of the doubt”, such as when practice learning opportunities do not quite come together to fully meet the needs of these individuals at a particular time.
The benefit of the doubt might also be exercised at times when a student does not quite fit the mould in the ways expected. Sometimes mentors need to challenge themselves about any stereotypical assumptions they might hold when they encounter students who are different.
I would not want to make excuses for poor mentoring, but I think it is important for nurses and students to understand these complexities. Both befriending and assessing is a difficult act to pull off, but mentors everywhere have to manage this balance. In doing do, they risk accusations of betrayal when they fail a student they have befriended and they need to maintain their authority in difficult assessment situations where their judgements might be challenged. However, it is much easier to learn in a friendly environment where you feel accepted as a person and where you feel comfortable to ask those “silly questions” or admit to a mistake. The mentors in my study understood this very well and went to great lengths to make their students feel welcome.
Sometimes, when hovering over which box they should tick, they simply asked themselves the question “would I trust this person to look after me or mine?”
About the author
Anthea Wilson is a lecturer for the faculty of health and social care at The Open University