Don Ambrose is Assistant Professor of Education, Graduate School, College of Education and Human Services, Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Jon Allen, previously a student in the gifted and talented program in Georgia now attends Columbia University. SaraBeth Huntley teaches gifted students at Roswell High School, Georgia.
These are the words of Jon Allen, an extremely bright and talented young man from Georgia, who became the central figure in a unique, triangular mentorship. Jon's considerable talents attracted the attention of two educators who eventually became his mentors. One of these people worked closely with Jon, providing ongoing intellectual guidance and emotional support throughout his high school years. The other, who lived 2300 miles away, provided occasional pieces of inspiration and insight through phone calls, letters, and glimpses of his own work, which was remarkably compatible with Jon's rather idiosyncratic interests. Over the years, Jon became a source of inspiration to his mentors, hence the term triangular mentorship.
In education there is a common and unfortunate misconception that gifted youths need no social attention because their talents give them a considerable advantage over their less academically talented peers. Actually, many of our gifted children face serious emotional and social problems that prevent them from developing to their highest potential (Cohen & Frydenberg, 1993). Whitmore (cited in Cohen & Frydenberg, 1993) estimates that an alarming 70% of these young people become gifted underachievers who resentfully bide their time in lock-step, pedagogical assembly lines paced for the average.
Mentorships, however, are one way to effectively guide the development of gifted young people through these difficult formative years (Gallagher, 1985). According to Zorman (1992), several critical elements make the relationship between mentor and protege much deeper and more enduring than the typical teacher-student relationship. For instance, the mentor and protege share passions and interests, and there is a close match between the mentor's teaching style and the protege's learning style. In addition, a lifelong bond of trust develops as the relationship evolves over time. The mentor becomes a trusted counselor or guide for the protege. Jon Allen enjoyed the benefit of such guidance.
Jon is a highly gifted young artist attending Columbia University. He already has produced some significant art work, and according to those who know him well, Jon's potential has few limits.
Dr. SaraBeth Huntley, an educator of the gifted in Fulton County, Georgia, was the primary mentor for Jon. She worked extensively with him, providing opportunities for independent study and individual guidance throughout his high school years. Dr. Don Ambrose, an assistant professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and a former school administrator in Western Canada, was a doctoral student at the University of Oregon when he became Jon's secondary, long distance mentor.
Jon met his primary mentor, SaraBeth, during his freshman year in high school. As part of the TAG program, SaraBeth was running subject extensions in which Jon and some of his peers studied topics and met weekly to discuss issues related to these topics. For Jon, these seminar sessions were challenging and exciting exercises in higher-order thought, and the mentorship with SaraBeth began to evolve. In Jon's words, "It gradually grew from an independent study to a true mentorship via the genuine communication between us, passion for the topic we studied, mutual respect, and resonating natures."
One of the subject extensions involved an exploration of artistic communication. This became the link that connected Jon to his secondary mentor, Don Ambrose. SaraBeth met Don at the 1990 National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. Having discovered intriguing parallels between Jon's interests and Don's work with visual metaphors, SaraBeth arranged for Don to call Jon from the convention center. An immediate rapport was established, leading to intermittent contacts and to the development of a long distance mentorship from 1990 to 1994. During this time the relationship spanned the continent, from Jon's home in Georgia to Oregon. Interestingly, Jon still has not met his secondary mentor, but the latter recently moved to the East coast and a meeting is imminent.
This is Jon's story. Educators and parents who look for ways to nurture the growth of gifted young people may profit from Jon's self-reported perceptions of his mentorship experience, and from the perceptions of the two adults who were so fortunate to cross his path. The triangular mentorship developed some interesting, nuances that should prove informative to those interested in supporting future scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders.
Illuminating the Nature of a Continent-Spanning Triangular MentorshipThis mini-case study describes the role of the mentorship in Jon's growth throughout his high school years. The three partners in the mentorship all reflected on the nature of their interactions. Their reflections addressed a series of questions about the mentorship regarding how it began, its effects on Jon's cognitive development, its most interesting affective elements, its most frustrating features, possible ways in which the mentorship contributed to Jon's career aspirations, and the advice that Jon might provide prospective mentors of gifted young people. To ensure accuracy, each reviewed his or her contributions to this report. Particular attention was paid to Jon's feedback since his perceptions of the experience are likely to be the most interesting to educators.
Cognitive Implications of the MentorshipJon's reflections strongly emphasize the ways in which his knowledge base and thought processes were influenced by the mentorship. In particular, he refers to a growing awareness and appreciation of his cognitive strengths. Jon clarifies his perception of the mentorship's influence on the development of his thought processes with a wonderful metaphorical insight.
Jon's insight is a remarkable piece of metacognition. He has incorporated the complex metaphorical and philosophical concepts of world view and conceptual lens passed on to him through Don's work and through discussions with Sara-Beth. Bowers and Flinders (1990) claim that those who understand the subtle yet pervasive influence of such metaphors are empowered to critically analyze their own thought and the thought of others. Jon's ability to do this is a remarkable accomplishment at the age of eighteen.
Some interesting similarities between Don's work and Jon's art also stimulated the latter's cognitive development. For several years, Don had been working with visual metaphor, a communicative and interpretative medium that is relatively untapped in education. Based on the work of Gruber (1981, 1989) and Cohen (1987), Don had developed a series of images of wide scope (IOWS) that captured the essence of complex theories of creativity and intelligence in the form of metaphorical drawings. The IOWS simplified the theories and condensed them, translating them into imaginative, unusual renderings. SaraBeth asked for copies of the IOWS, believing that they would encourage Jon in his art work. In the fall of 1990, Don sent copies of these IOWS to Jon who incorporated them into an independent study of creativity. The IOWS provided Jon with a sense of validation for his own thought processes.
Exposure to the IOWS gave Jon the inspiration he needed to further enrich his art work with intricate conceptual connections.
Affective Influences in the MentorshipPersistent and inspiring emotional support during the formative years of a budding artist can protect his or her emerging genius. This was the case with Jon. According to SaraBeth, Jon experienced some difficult times when his interests and strength of conviction conflicted with the sociocultural milieu in which he was immersed. She notes a profound strengthening of his resolve over the years, indicating that he has grown into an exceptionally mature young man with strong character. This might have occurred without the mentorship experience, but according to Jon the emotional support provided by contact with adults who truly understood was "crucial to my development." He hints at the powerful emotional impact provided by the mentorship experience:
If the effect of this emotional impact persists over time it will serve Jon well. According to Gruber (1989), it is the affective or emotional aspects of a creative individual's work that supports the immense effort needed to persist with long-term, difficult endeavors that are not often immediately valued by society. It is such long-term endeavors that define a creative life. A highly gifted person with sufficient emotional strength to withstand the criticisms of an unappreciative society has a chance to achieve eminence in a chosen field. Jon's mentors helped him develop the passion for his work that will enable him to maximize his considerable abilities.
Effect of the Mentorship on Jon's Career and Life PathOne of the most important roles of a mentor is to help the protégés better define the nature of their life's work. This role is particularly difficult when dealing with a highly gifted young man with multiple interests. Jon certainly has creative potential, but to achieve that potential he must channel much of his talent into a particular domain or field of endeavor. Gruber's (1989) research pertaining to the life-long creative development of highly gifted people indicates that the individual's sense of purpose provides a general direction along which a career develops over time. In dynamic tension with this purposeful direction is the urge to pursue interesting opportunities that lie beyond the path of career development. Thus, a creative life is characterized by a purposeful general direction punctuated with minor course deviations.
In Jon's case, the mentorship helped him clarify his general sense of purpose although he has not yet decided on a career.
This clarification is related to Jon's ability to more firmly grasp his interests through the mentorship experience. Although Jon's interest in art already was quite strong before he met his dual mentors, the mentorship helped him to intensify his interest in art and to further clarify the nature of that interest. He succeeded in establishing a strong sense of purpose, and he can be confident that the specifics of his career will align themselves with this purpose.
What's In it for the Mentor?Jon's work captured the imaginations of his two mentors, fueling their idealism and prompting them to work with him. SaraBeth commented that she gained emotionally charged cognitive insights and certain metacognitive understandings from her role as mentor. Her insight about the blending of cognitive and affective experiences is reported as an aspect of self-knowledge.
Don and Jon contributed to SaraBeth's growth in self-understanding, or intrapersonal intelligence, one of Gardner's (1983) multiple intelligences. SaraBeth also reports that her role in the mentorship made her appreciate the positive impact she could have on another person, which enabled her to more fully "give from the heart." The mentorship evolved and strengthened as she teamed to enjoy the rewards of giving. For her, nurturing a gifted youth never was just a part of her job.
The question, "What's in it for the mentor?" is especially pertinent when the mentor has never met the protege and corresponds with him on a sporadic basis from the opposite side of the continent. In Don's case it was the remarkably close match of interests and talents between himself and Jon that kept the third side of the triangle going.
Another attraction for Don was the opportunity to nurture a young person who could make a difference in a rapidly changing world.
Interestingly, Jon's altruistic, empathic nature appealed to SaraBeth in much the same way. Before she met Jon, SaraBeth encountered one of his drawings, hanging in a middle school classroom.
Jon certainly is not the only beneficiary of the mentorship. The rewards for his mentors may not be immediate and tangible, but they are very real and powerful.
Advice from the ProtegeJon is an insightful young man and his recommendations from the viewpoint of a protege can inform prospective mentors of the gifted. It is a rare mentor who could achieve everything that Jon suggests and wise mentors understand need reminding. Jon recommends the following:
ConclusionMost of the overt control in education lies in the hands of adults. Researchers and theorists define the parameters of knowledge and practitioners define the parameters of a student's experience. It is refreshing to examine the perceptions and suggestions of someone with recent experience as a student and as a protege in a triangular mentorship. It is particularly enlightening to hear these messages from someone who has developed much wisdom and clarity of thought at a young age.
This mentorship is a three-way partnership in which the mentors gain as much as they give. The partners in this mentorship certainly inspire one another. Jon's experience shows that it is important for mentors to provide emotional support and encouragement, particularly when the protege has had some difficulty adjusting to the educational system. It also shows that different mentors can serve different needs for the protege. An empathic mentor can provide on-going support and guidance through difficult times. Another mentor, whose work closely matches the interests of the protege, can provide occasional insights and inspirations about a topic of study. The latter interactions can be encouraging even if the mentor and the protege have never met face-to-face.
A triangular mentorship such as this can have a profound impact on the emotional and cognitive development of a young person. Since mentors can be so influential, they are well advised to consider the ethical implications of their role. They must periodically assess the nature of their impact on the protege. Jon's recommendations are particularly valuable in this regard. He suggests that the ideal mentor is an insightful, flexible person who guides without controlling. Such a person is likely to be aware of his or her influence and should be able to artfully modify that influence throughout the course of a long-term, evolving relationship.
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Permission to reprint article was granted to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development by Don Ambrose, Jon Allen and SaraBeth Huntley, and by the publisher, Roeper Review.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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