Dr. Elizabeth (Buffy) Bondy
School of Teaching and Learning
2016-2017 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Mentoring doctoral students is a critical and joyful element of my teaching responsibilities. I am guided by a commitment to cultivate academic and scholarly excellence----in the context of the complexities of individual students’ histories, goals, strengths, and challenges. As such, knowing students as intellectual, social, and emotional human beings is a fundamental component of my approach to mentoring. In order to mentor them properly, I must know them well.
I work with doctoral students in two kinds of programs. One is a traditional Ph.D. program which focuses on preparing students to be researchers, typically in higher education settings. The other is an Ed.D. program which focuses on preparing “practitioner scholars” who will lead change efforts in their professional environments, typically Kindergarten-12th grade public school settings. Both programs maintain high standards for admission, performance, and completion while preparing students to excel in diverse professional contexts. While my Ph.D. students are located in Norman Hall on the UF campus, my Ed.D. students are scattered across the U.S., are employed full-time as educators, and range in age from their 20’s into their 50’s.
Although my goals for Ph.D. and Ed.D. students differ according to the different purposes of the two programs, I approach mentoring all students by balancing pressure and support to achieve excellence. In order to determine the degree of pressure and support, I rely on Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s notion of meeting learners in their “zone of proximal development.” This zone represents the learner’s cognitive and affective state related to what is to be learned. That is, what knowledge, skills, and dispositions does the learner have, and are they sufficient for the task at hand?
Frequently, of course, doctoral students lack knowledge and skills, and it is my responsibility to structure experiences that enable them to acquire that knowledge and those skills. For Ph.D. students, these experiences often take the form of collaborating on designing and implementing research projects and the many activities related to that work. By engaging students early as research apprentices, I establish and model the expectations of a research scholar. Skilled mentoring requires the ability to assess a student’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions to determine how much to push and how much/what kind of support is needed for the student to be able to meet the expectations of the field. Often, the necessary support is related to the development of specific research skills. Sometimes, however, support is also needed to develop essential academic skills such as writing, time management, and problem solving. And sometimes the support is related to more amorphous yet critical areas such as confidence, collaboration, and communication. I am an effective mentor because I identify individual students’ strengths and challenges, and I tailor experiences to build on those strengths and address the challenges. In other words, I differentiate mentoring for the diverse students for whom I am responsible.
Tailoring pressure and support is more challenging when students are at a distance and working full time. This is because I don’t have the opportunity to collaborate with them as researchers early in their programs. Consequently, when these students begin to tackle their dissertation research, they tend to need close attention and, often, extensive support. Identifying my Ed.D. students’ zones of proximal development quickly and determining the nature of the supports and the extent of pressure needed becomes an urgent, time sensitive matter. Individual telephone calls are the mechanism for providing individualized support for distant students. I have talked with students at all hours of the day, on weekends, and in diverse locations, including the car, baggage claim at the airport, and different time zones. Some need regularly scheduled calls with clearly defined agendas; some need fewer, less structured calls. Some need me to be a cheerleader, some need a taskmaster, and some just need to be reminded, “Oh, yes you can.” My challenge is to be responsive to their particular strengths and challenges and tailor my mentoring to each of them.
Evidence of the effectiveness of my mentoring is apparent in the high enrollment in my doctoral seminars, the large number of doctoral committees on which I serve, and the productivity and accomplishments of my students. I am one of two faculty in my School who is able to routinely offer an advanced doctoral seminar and guarantee sufficient enrollment. In fact, because my fall seminar always fills and doctoral students have persistently requested another seminar with me, I developed and offered a follow-up doctoral seminar during the spring 2016 semester and will offer a second new seminar during the spring of 2017 (Teaching in Higher Education). I attribute this success to my responsive mentoring approach which communicates high standards, respect, and commitment to students. Similarly, I currently serve on many doctoral committees representing students in my specialization area of Curriculum, Teaching, and Teacher Education as well as specializations such as Educational Technology; Special Education; School Psychology; School, Society and Culture; and ESOL/Bilingual Education. In an effort to provide support for junior faculty who are learning to mentor graduate students, my director invited me to share a template I developed to help doctoral students clarify the focus of and methodology for their dissertation research. Finally, my students continue to be highly productive. For example, this year a student was accepted to a prestigious seminar at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, another was awarded the best poster presentation at the meeting of the Florida Association of Teacher Educators, two were invited to present papers at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, and two had papers accepted for publication in peer reviewed journals. I have mentored four students who have worked closely with me as Research Assistants on a Florida Department of Education funded grant, for which I am the Principal Investigator. In addition, five students and former students are collaborating with me on six papers that have been accepted for presentation this year at professional meetings.
Good mentors provide the opportunities and the scaffolding needed to assist students on the path to excellence. All students need a combination of pressure and support. The challenge is to determine the nature and extent of each that is required at any given time, for any given student. By meeting students in their zone of proximal development, I can provide tailored mentoring to help them achieve their academic and professional goals.