Toxic Mentoring

What is a mentor?

A mentor is a someone who guides a less experienced person by building trust and modeling positive behaviors. This relationship is extremely important for a multitude of reasons, primarily because the behaviors the learner acquires early on will stay with them through out their career. Effective mentors understand that their role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and tuned into the needs of the mentee. Unfortunately, not all mentoring experiences are positive.

As with any relationship, the mentor/mentee relationship has the potential to be dysfunctional or toxic. A toxic mentor is a term often used to describe a relationship that hinders or suppresses student learning, creates a dependency on the mentor, and results in diminished self confidence on the part of the learner.

Toxic relationships impact the learner and those around them, some of the resultant impacts are:

  • High turn over
  • Low worker satisfaction
  • Lateral violence – acts that occur between colleagues (e.g. bullying)
  • Fear and insecurity
  • Sabotage
  • Negative impact on health
  • Depression

Types of Toxic Mentors

The Avoider

avoider The Avoider is a mentor who is neither available nor accessible to the student to set and review their practice and goals or to provide support, challenge, and role modelling. Sometimes these mentors are over-committed, but that’s not an excuse for being non-communicative. Occasionally the realistic excuse of being too busy will hold water but the regular occurrence of this phenomenon indicates a mentor who is not at all committed to the task.

The Blocker

blocker2 The Blocker is one who hinders the learner’s development in a number of ways such as preventing them from accessing learning, over-supervising, or by withholding knowledge or information. They may also actively refuse a students requests for help or experience.

The Dumper

sinking The Dumper embraces the “sink or swim” mentality and will often deliberately leave the learner in situations where they are out of their depth and offer little to no assistance. This can obviously be dangerous and can have a huge negative impact upon the students’ confidence. This type of mentor will also take little responsibility for organizing meetings or learning experiences, leaving up to the student.

The Destroyer

inferior The Destroyer will use overt challenges and uses tactics such as humiliation that set out to destroy the learner’s self-confidence. At its worst this is done in public and has a huge impact upon confidence. Such mentors can also have a tendency to an over-inflated view of their own level of competence and can regard themselves as experts. One of the best parts of being a mentor is embracing the many challenges which students present as well as welcoming questioning minds and the desire to learn from the students. Once this the desire is lost the mentor needs to reconsider their role.

Habits of Toxic Mentors

  • Works with student much less than 40% of the time.
  • Frequently cancels meetings.
  • Regards student as a care assistant.
  • Will not let student do anything unsupervised.
  • Does not take account of level of learner.
  • Does not find out students learning needs.
  • Puts student in difficult unsupervised positions.
  • Does not broker learning experiences.
  • Frequently asks others to ‘look after’ the student.
  • Leaves the student to arrange everything.
  • Does not engage student in reflection on experience.
  • Feedback focuses upon the deficits and “weaknesses”.
  • Does not help with action plans.
  • Takes no responsibility for student learning.
  • Doesn’t attend mentor updates.
  • Is unfamiliar with the students paperwork and assessment.
  • Rarely aware of the evidence behind their own practice.
  • Does not acknowledge students prior experience.
  • Reluctant to embrace change.
  • Displays unprofessional behaviour.
  • Does not link work well with the multi-disciplinary team.

Dealing with a Toxic Mentor

To be clear, just because your mentor has any one of these tendencies does not necessarily make them a bad person or a bad mentor. Dealing with a toxic mentor is particularly complicated for graduate students due to the huge power dynamic. Often times the mentors are the ones who determine your success at the university which makes it especially easy for them to be taken advantage of. If you feel that your mentor is hindering your ability to succeed there are a few things that you can do.

  1. Consider a co-mentoring option to diversify
  2. Talk to your mentor directly about your concerns
  3. Talk to your university ombudsperson (Graduate Student Ombudsperson at Virginia Tech)

Strategies for maintaining focus when you’re wired for distraction

I have Attention Deficit Disorder, while some people don’t believe it actually exists I think that we can all agree that we can all agree that everyone displays varying degrees of its symptoms from time to time. I am wired to be distracted. When my medication wears off I am off the wall, impulsive, fidgety, and show a complete lack of focus. During the day, it’s not so bad, but as you can imagine on occasion there things in the workplace that make it difficult to get things done.
How do you become productive when you’re wired to be distracted? Become aware of yourself & have a plan thing that plays to your strengths.
Having a plan is good, planning to be flexible is better – Keep lists of what has to be done, prioritize your tasks by day (I’ve never been good at that), and then be prepared for things to change because as much as we love to think that things go according to plan, they seldom do.

Find your time of day – I work best in the mornings so I focus on my difficult or longer tasks in the morning and work on lighter tasks after lunch and toward the end of the day. It helps me from getting stressed and allows me to remain consistent in the amount of effort required to exert the same level of focus.
2013-08-23-tumblr_m08celcrnT1r3isxuo1_500Some of my colleagues love to work at night while that is something I simply cannot do, but it works so well for them. Find your time and focus your more difficult tasks during those times.
Identify your major distractors – Between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM I hate my cellphone. It’s like Facebook Messenger, my Gmail, Outlook, and text messages all decide to blow up at the same time. It drove me nuts for months. When I’m at work I have to mute my messenger and other email accounts. Since I am a chronic worrier however, I leave my text messages and phone calls on vibrate just in case something happens.
tumblr_static_helloYounger students regularly will stop by for advice which I am happy to provide but can set me back for hours. This is one distractor I’m willing to accept. I would rather have an open door for younger researchers and students so I can serve as an effective mentor than get a few extra things knocked off my list.  tumblr_mglptftelw1rrb9xco6_r1_250
Know how stress affects you and how to deal with itStress in small does makes me superhuman. I get a massive amount of stuff done in no time, but if this stress is consistent over a prolonged period of time, I shut down. I fall into a deep depression and panic regularly. I have difficulty getting out of bed and going to work, so what do I do on those days? Those days I email my supervisor and attempt to work from home surrounded by kittens. Limiting social interactions helps tremendously, plus working from home is great because there are fewer distractions than at my office. I am aware that this is not possible for everyone. I am very fortunate to work in an environment where my supervisors are so lax about where we get our work done so long as it’s getting done.
tumblr_n0t6a8nEpG1toj4xso1_500Being able to overcome the distraction is a challenge but we can do it! It takes time, practice, and determination.
you got it dudeA post for another day considers how medication may impact your mood and ability to be productive. One post I really enjoyed reading about Adderall and medication to assist with attention deficit disorder can be found here.

Setting your mind on fire with critical pedagogy

Education can function to control and contain students and maintain the status quo. Or, it empowers students to be critically engaged and active participants in society.
It is time to take education beyond the walls of the classroom. 
Focusing singularly on textbook problems and not applying them to a real context leaves students wondering “what is the point?” and that’s really not what you want the take away from your lessons to be.  Often times courses that are run like that leave the students feeling like this…
Another concept within the principle of critical pedagogy is eliminating conventional power relations – when I’m teaching I would really prefer to be called Alex, or Dr. Alex (if students really have to stick a title in there). This title + last name thing for folks we’re talking with everyday is a daily reminder of a rigid and dated power paradigm. notFriends_Family
Any time I head a prof. wanting to be addressed as Dr. S0-and-so PE I’m like
Critical pedagogy requires critical reflection and analysis. 
Like really – you can’t shut it off. You need to light your brain UP – fire those neurons. Think critically, think about things after the lecture. Discuss them with those who will talk with you about them.
Reexamines the role of educators in relation to society and environment

Be an inclusive instructor – Read more about that here
 Communicate WITH not AT students
Self explanatory – have fun, have discussion, treat them as equals. They’ll freakin’ love it.
Problem based learning – problem-solving and problem-posing
Problem based learning is not the picture on the left. It’s the one on the right. Have fun with teaching so these students have fun learning. If they’re having fun they’re more likely to be able to recall this information.
Critical consciousness which allows for the informed analysis of systemic issues
It is the responsibility of the instructor to raise awareness of critical issues in society (e.g., environment), and encourage students’ sense of themselves as active agents with the ability to shape the world in which they live. Keep it real with them – like really real.
 Some critics of this  type of pedagogy say that it will “create political radicals” honestly that’s totally fine with me. There is some division between traditional and progressive education and that statement highlights it quite well.
 The future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present. – Paulo Freire

Inclusive Pedagogy – Moving past privilege and bias toward a more inclusive climate

Before we begin, I want to break down the differences between privilege, bias, and racism.whitePrivilege
Privilege (n): a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person (or group of people) beyond the advantages of most.check-your-privilege Below are a just a few examples – one of male privilege that I have encountered through my research in transportation safety. The other, I was less aware of until recently.
The Automotive Industry – Male Privilege
Seat belts are less safe for women (like by a lot) – When safety regulations were originally imposed on automakers in the 1960’s regulators wanted to require the use of two crash test dummies, a 95 percentile male and a 5 percentile female meaning that only 5% of men were larger than and 5% of women were smaller than the crash test dummies. Automakers pushed back on regulators until the requirement was reduced to a single crash test dummy, a 50 percentile male (the average man). Women drivers were far more likely to be severely injured than male drivers in crashes due to seat belts. Since 2011, female crash test dummies have been required in safety testing, so we’re moving forward but we have been working with 50 years of dangerous design practice in the automobile industry.

The Cosmetics Industry – White Privilege
I’ve never had an issue finding band aids that match my skin tone (unless I’m at a friend’s house who has children, then its Elsa or bust, baby). [Additional info here]
Bias (n): prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Explicit bias occurs at a conscious level. Expressions of explicit of bias (discrimination, hate speech, etc.) occur as the result of deliberate thought. Thus, they can be consciously regulated. People are more motivated to control their biases if there are social norms in place which dictate that prejudice is not socially acceptable.
Implicit biases however are inescapable – everyone possesses them. The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our outward beliefs or reflect what we endorse. We generally tend to hold favor toward our own “ingroup” though research has shown we can hold implicit biases (and interestingly in some cases explicit biases) against our own ingroup. The good news and bad news is that implicit biases are malleable – we can unlearn implicit associations we have formed through, though in some cases new biases can be developed over time and exposure.but


Institutional/Systemic Racism (Discrimination)
 Systematic racism – Systemic racism occurs when the way a society is structured systematically ends up giving advantages to some and disadvantages to others.
Systemic racism is something we can see every day – consider the following;bntsg

Systemic Racism in Higher Education
This is a fantastic article on institutional racism in higher education [here] you should read the checklist and see how many your favorite universities check off. I know one of mine is pretty high up on the list as demonstrated below – someday I’ll get to addressing the other offices at Tech, but this example will do nicely for now.


Presidents of Virginia Tech 1872 – Present

Now – I’m sure that by and large our past presidents have been lovely men (here’s lookin’ at you Sands!) but the fact of the matter is, they’re all “mature”, Caucasian, males in charge of this university. How would the mission of the university change if the face of Virginia Tech were a woman? A person of color? I suppose a homosexual woman of color with a physical disability would be completely out of the question, but what if? I bet faculty and staff would be getting more useful training that WebEx versions of Title IX and COI training that’s for sure. Follow on question – what if we had more empathetic leaders? Leaders who were willing to put themselves in to the shoes of the folks who are living, learning, and working here – it’s not too hard to imagine all it takes is consideration and a question,  “What can WE do?”
“What can we do to create a more inclusive environment for our students?”
“What can we do so that all of our students feel safe on campus?”

Creating an Inclusive Environment in the Classroom and the Universitywhite-privilege-9Be aware and understanding
Be understanding of the needs of your students. If you should make yourself aware of the holidays and practices of religious groups. For example being hungry really stinks (Snickers said it best, “you’re not you when you’re hungry”) but it’s one of the main components several observed religious days of multiple groups. So it is important to be considerate of the changes in demeanor. If I had to get up super early to pray and couldn’t drink coffee, I’d probably crash pretty hard in my own class too. This requires educating yourself a little bit, but we tend to cater toward a special kind of privilege with regard to the holidays we celebrate in academia (and with regard to the American government as a whole), but again, educating yourself will help to mitigate any implicit bias. Check this calendar out from University of Missouri, THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!

Encourage discussion
In the design of systems we have to ultimately consider the user. For example – speech recognition systems are inherently horrible (with command prompts, etc.) particularly for people with accents. If you start dropping non-American slang into the SI forget about it. From a human factors perspective it would be a fantastic discussion point to bring up issues everyone has had with these systems (or any system in general) and how the designer could have been more inclusive in their design.

Encourage the use of “I statements” over “You statements”
This one may have come from many years in therapy, but hear me out. “You statements” are typically the way we communicate (e.g. “you are no help at all”, “you are insensitive”, “you are a bigot”). These statements are typically not well received and do not offer the receiving individual any grey area or time to reflect. You’re placing them immediately in an “I am right, you are wrong” situation. The use of I statements make the speaker take responsibility for their emotions, seeing as we only know how WE are feeling. When we are able to own and share our emotions we create a bridge to allow the person we are speaking with to then get in touch with their feelings.
When you focus on what you are feeling, rather than on your opinion on the matter (as is conveyed through a “You” statement), it is non-threatening and inoffensive. So the person is less likely to jump to DEFCON 1 and they’re more likely to listen to what you have to say. It is important to identify what you are feeling rather than what the other person is doing, or how you perceive their intentions.
If someone says something that offends you, tell them, but state it in an “I” statement, not a “You” statement.

Open door policy
My door will always be open for my students when they need me. I will continuously make them aware of that. Despite my generally sarcastic nature I genuinely care about the physical and psychological well-being of my students. I will not tolerate any discriminatory action being taken against them and I hope that they would feel comfortable to speak with me about any issues that are having.

In Closingeffingeducate

Additional Resources:
This one gets all the “yeses”!:
A pretty solid list of the different types of privilege:
Table data:
Strategies to reduce the influence of implicit bias:
Awesome blog:
Times article – Gender bias:
Educational comics provided by:



Finding my teaching voice by watching Doctor Who


While trying to think about how I want to teach I happened to be on a Doctor Who kick. Doctor who is about a humanoid alien (Time Lord to be specific) with two hearts, a blue space ship called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) that is bigger on the inside. A biological function of  the Time Lords allows them to change their cellular structure and appearance for  the purpose of recovery following a potentially fatal injury (hence the multiple faces in the gifs below). The Doctor travels through space and time fighting monsters, saving the world, and making friends through out the galaxies.  I realized that Doctor Who sends many great messages. There are a great number of things from Doctor Who that I would like to apply to my every day life as well as to my teaching voice.  Here are the top 6, Allons-y!


  1. Show compassion
    One of the main themes in Doctor Who is compassion. The Doctor is constantly revealing his heart (both of them) and chooses to show compassion to strangers, friends, and enemies. The rule of compassion seems to be one that the Doctor can’t break. Remember that you were once in the same position as your students, show them compassion like you have two hearts. tumblr_lsel3aoKff1qat9klo1_r1_500
  2. Show humility
    At times the Doctor can be arrogant, but he’s at his best when he is modest. That being said, you aren’t a Time Lord from Gallifrey and you certainly don’t have a TARDIS. Remember to leave your ego in your office (or better yet, at home) when you’re teaching a class.
  3. Demonstrate morality
    The Doctor always offers those wrong who him a choice. He is one for fairness and justice, but also has a strong sense of right and wrong. Sometimes students will cheat on assignments, slack off, or just have a really rough day. Be compassionate (point 1), but remember to stick to your morals.
  4. Be weird
    Being weird is cool. Bow ties, fezzes, and Stetsons – are not cool by themselves. Being your quirky self, however, is very cool. Society is good at teaching individuals to mind their place, to keep in line and to conform. Yet I cannot think of a single person who I admire, or who has accomplished anything extraordinary, who was not weird in some major way. Seriously though, be yourself when you’re teaching and don’t try and be anything else, and remember; there’s no point in being grown up if you can’t act childish every once in a while.
  5. Be clever
    I learned there is no problem in the entire universe that cannot be solved by being clever. There is always a better way to go about something, provided you have the time and resources available to achieve it.
    The War, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors were brought to the last day of the Time War during The Day of the Doctor, an occurrence that should’ve been impossible owing to the fact that the events of the war were time locked.
    Using all his previous incarnations to work out the required calculations, the Eleventh Doctor was able to secure Gallifrey’s future within a pocket universe. He found a different and “better” way to do things and, the Doctor now has the knowledge that his people are still alive and out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and brought back without reigniting the Time War.
    Be clever in the classroom. Its a space for being creative, problems will randomly present themselves. What if your projector stops working and so on. Be an active problem solver, don’t just sit on your heels and wait for things to happen around you.
  1. Be willing to help and accept help
    The Doctor is a hero, he’s strong, he’s smart and he is obviously someone that the audience look up to. The Doctor is always keen to give help to whoever needs it. The role of the companion is actually to help the Doctor whether by being a friend and being there for him or actually helping him in his plots. Even the Doctor calls on his friends for help when he is in a difficult situation. One particular example is the episode “A Good Man Goes to War” where the Doctor has to call on all of his friends for help.
    Be willing to ask for help when you need it. Your lectures aren’t going to so well? Ask the people suffering through them for advice. Answer all the questions whenever you get them. Don’t be a jerk, you are here to help (in case you forgot, please see point 2). here_to_help

Making the grade

I enjoy the company of young people – they like to think. They have cool ideas, they’re off the wall, and down right hilarious. As I’m getting closer to the age of wanting to have a family of my own I find myself looking at the homework of my friend’s children and often times helping with it. In one particular case – my neighbor’s oldest son (who shall be called J) is in the second grade. J is a kind boy who listens well and has a real respect for people who show him respect. I often help J with his homework (which always seems to be freakin’ math) after school because his home situation is less than ideal. The first time we did his homework together he remarked, “Wow, it takes a lot longer to do the assignment with you.” I wasn’t sure what that was. Sure, we usually ended up doing most of the assignment twice – I would let him work through the whole thing on his own, we’d go over the problems that were incorrect, but that didn’t seem out of the ordinary. I make him re-write numbers that were difficult to read and his half-hearted attempts as erasing. In spite of those things I still didn’t think us doing his homework together took much longer than it would take than if he did it with him mom, granny, or CW.

One Monday morning J was outside visibly upset – so I asked him what was wrong. He replied, “I don’t want to do my homework.” Now, the fact that a second grader has homework over the weekend is kind of tripping me out a little bit already, but I can roll with that. So his mom asks me to come in and explain a logic problem to her because she didn’t understand it. While I’m looking at the assignment I notice something strange. None of the handwriting on the assignment is J’s. His mother was doing his homework and her response when I asked, “Why in the world are you doing your child’s homework?” was “So he will get a good grade, but now he will just have to get a bad one.”  – Now you can imagine the look on my face sort of went like this…


Grading systems are dated. We live in a competitive society where getting into colleges, scholarships and fellowships, and getting a job is contingent on a number associated with your grades (GPA is an entirely separate issue which I’m sure I will rant about at some point this semester).  Things are getting competitive earlier and earlier to the point where we’re having parent’s doing children’s homework. Depriving them of the very thing that they are going to school for, an education. And while given our current academic structure grades might be important now, a student’s worth, particularly a child’s should not be so heavily impacted by it. I shouldn’t have to listen to J say he’s stupid because he didn’t get a “check-plus” or a “doggy stamp” on his homework. J is a kind boy who struggles with certain things in school just like any child. J will make it in this world if people continue to build him up, work with him, and teach him. I hope in the future we can reform education so that it isn’t a system of segregation and a bringer of emotional distress. Learning should be fun – not anxiety inducing.

How do we measure knowledge?

Why is examination the measure by which we judge an individual’s understanding of material? I have had this inability to take tests well since I was a child. It’s not to say I’m unintelligent or I can’t have a conversation about the material being covered, what it does say is I am a very poor test taker. I have had classes (some very recently) where examination was the end-all-be-all of performance measurement. Pure memorization of safety principles that can and should be referenced in a manual before it is applied in practice just to be sure you don’t kill anyone by performing addition where you should have been performing subtraction.

Instead why can’t performance by gauged by assignments and discussion with the instructor? I would prefer a challenging take home exam to a standardized in class assessment any day of the week. Sure – it’s more challenging to grade, but students can take more away from something they have had time to sit and reflect on in depth rather than having to cram the material into their heads for an exam that they will forget 15 minutes after they leave the room.

Why can’t knowledge be measured by the ability to carry on intelligent conversation and contribute ideas to the field? Why must so much weight be placed on one task?

Working in a bubble – not as awesome as it sounds

maxresdefaultWorking in a bubble – your current situation is not representative of reality.

Why we need to leave the bubble – we need to leave the bubble to work in a multidisciplinary environment, to work in an environment that is representative of the real world. Interaction with people who have different opinions and different views will allow for the exploration of new stances on subjects that you may not have considered previously. The way courses are taught currently is known as “the sage on the stage” method. Students are lectured and talked at for an hour or so and sent on their way to do their assignments. The instructors are perceived as the holders of all knowledge, but in reality that is simply not the case.

Working outside the bubble – all involved are contributors of relevant topics and knowledge. Sources of knowledge are not limited to select professors and a list of approved textbooks. Working outside of the bubble removes the limitations that are brought on by “the sage on the stage” method.

In engineering and other hard sciences, a blend of the methods would be suitable to encourage problem solving in the “traditional” way, but also turning students loose to work out problems on their own to figure out alternative ways to tackle the same issues.  images