My Experience in Mentorship: Encouraging Potential to Accelerate Performance
I’d like to share a story of my own, about mentorship and mastery. I remember a situation many years ago when I was already an experienced interpreter. However, I had very little experience with conference interpreting – either standing on stage or voicing for presenters from the stage.
I attended a conference with the expectation that I would be interpreting for workshops and smaller settings. There had been no prior information that I was expected to work in a larger setting. After I arrived at the conference, I met a Deaf man who had come to the conference from another state. He was scheduled to give the keynote address to share his personal experience and motivational message to the attendees. We sat down for lunch at the same table and started chatting. He asked me my name, and I introduced myself. When I told him my name, he informed me that he had heard many good things about me and that I was his scheduled interpreter for the keynote address!
As you can imagine, I was quite surprised by this. It so happened that the person sitting next to me at the table was a good friend of mine, and also an interpreter, and she confirmed what the presenter said. I was surprised, and confused, as this was beyond the scope of my expectations for this assignment. The presenter then proceeded to tell me about his upcoming speech – sharing his talking points, specific topics and vocabulary, city names and other details. After lunch, I was walking with my friend (who had been sitting next to me), and when I was able, I asked her what was going on. She replied that they had decided on me to interpret, saying, “You are a good match for him, you can voice for him best.” I countered with, “No, I don’t have experience doing this, I can’t do this.” She was adamant that I could do it. She shared specifics about other assignments she had seen me do. However, I was still very anxious about this assignment and did not believe I could handle it. As we discussed the assignment, she continued to insist that I would do a good job and it would be fine.
Finally, she told me that if I truly could not do it, then she would take over the assignment – but she reiterated her confidence in my ability. She mentioned the name of another interpreter who also attested to my ability to handle the assignment. Both of these people – the woman who had sat next to me, and the second person that she mentioned, were professionals that I had great respect for and looked up to. I really didn’t know what to do at that point. I remember sitting in my chair before the start of the presentation, holding the microphone in my sweaty hands, still feeling like I was not able to meet the expectations of this assignment. I continued to protest, to express my self-doubt.
Suddenly, the presentation started, I flipped the microphone on and began voicing for the Deaf presenter. One word followed another. I could feel my friend sitting next to me – who had encouraged me to accept the assignment, had shared her confidence in my skills and strengths, and had taken the time to talk with me before the assignment began. As the presentation progressed, I could feel her hand on my leg, squeezing it with enthusiasm, giving me positive support for my work. It was support for my word choices and for my ability to keep up with the presentation. I completed voicing the presentation and turned off the microphone. Of course, as soon as the microphone was turned off, I became anxious again! So, I worked the rest of the conference, and then returned home. When I arrived home, my friend who had sat next to me contacted me by phone. She said, “Melvin, I want to tell you something.”
She told me that when she had returned to work (we worked for the same agency but at different locations), several people had come up to her to talk about the “man who had voiced for the presenter at the conference.” They all told her that the interpreter must have had a script – that “you were reading from the script, keeping up with the presenter, right?” They told her there was no other way for the interpreter to be that smooth, to match with the presenter so seamlessly, to match voice intonations with his facial expressions, to voice his jokes and make them funny, and to just keep going through the entire presentation. She told me, “You know, that’s a huge compliment; I know you did not have a script. I know you voiced live for that speaker. He was funny, and you matched his humor with your voicing. You didn’t add things that weren’t there. You stayed on his message. As he mentioned different towns in his state, you remembered them from your preparation with him during lunch, and voiced them without hesitation.” I have to admit, this praise felt good. It was validation for me – that I could do assignments like this.
This made me realize that a mentor isn’t always someone who works with a person ahead of time to prepare them for a situation. Sometimes a mentor just has more faith in a person than they have in themselves. You (as a mentor) believe in someone more than they believe in themselves. As their mentor, you sometimes have to push them into uncomfortable or scary situations, to help them learn what they are capable of. From that experience, I learned to observe and assess other people’s strengths that they may not have recognized in themselves. When the opportunity arises, I encourage placing them in challenging situations, to prove to them that they have the skills, knowledge, and ability to succeed. They may not know – but they have it.
As mentors, we should not just compliment what a person already sees in themselves, but look for and compliment the qualities they don’t know they have. Provide support in a way that is positive and trusting – this is critical. In my situation, I trusted my mentor; she said I could do it. I was nervous and anxious, but I did it because she told me I could, and I trusted her. I also knew that if I was unable to do the assignment, she would step in to support me or take over. After the assignment was over, I realized that she knew me and my skills better than I knew myself. So, I’ve taken the lesson that I learned from her and applied it to my own mentees. It’s become my goal to build people’s skills and their confidence in themselves. That’s my mentorship example. I hope that you will share your examples, as well.
In addition, I want to emphasize that we should not forget we get the best mentorship from the Deaf community. I grew up in the Deaf community. When I started interpreting, it was for people I knew personally. I grew up with them, and they were forthright and candid in their feedback to me. I didn’t mind their criticism; I didn’t mind them pointing out the things that I did wrong. I just accepted their input – because I didn’t know better, and this was a learning opportunity for which I was grateful.
Was I a “perfect student”? Of course not. Sometimes I felt like they just wanted to complain, not necessarily because of any inability or lack of skills on my part. I came to realize that yes, maybe they did “complain” – but did I actively seek out ways to accept their input so I could improve my skills? This type of thinking helped me to understand how I could be a better interpreter and how to facilitate communication in a better way. Let me share an example to illustrate my point. Imagine being in a situation where there is an interpreter. After you’ve left the event, what do you remember? You remember that you attended the event and that there was an awesome presenter. You remember the name of the presenter, their story, and the details they shared. Then someone asks, “Who was the interpreter?” And you can’t remember.
That is a sign that the interpreter did an awesome job. The interpreter didn’t make it about themselves – they made it about the presenter, the situation, and the people who were involved. If the first thing you remember is the interpreter, and you can’t remember the speaker or their message, then that issue needs to be explored. It’s a sign that attention was focused on the interpreter, instead of on the event as a whole. My point is that we, as interpreters, become the medium of communication that provides access for both parties. Through us, these parties build trust and respect for each other. When we do our job correctly, they are successful. If the assignment turns into something where they are more dependent on the interpreter, then the interpreter is becoming successful at the expense of the two parties. That’s not the point of what we do.
I want to thank you all sincerely for your work and for your involvement in the Deaf community. The Deaf community is my home, and I truly appreciate what you do every day. Thank you.
Melvin Walker, M.Ed., CRC, CI and CT, NAD V
Melvin Walker is the RID Board of Directors President. He has been employed by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services for the past 12 years and is currently in the position of Senior Rehabilitation Counselor. He is also employed by SorensonCommunications as a part-time VRS Interpreter. Melvin has been involved in the Deaf world all of his life and has been connected professionally for the past 26 years. He has served numerous years on the Boards of the Alabama Chapter of RID, the Alabama Association of the Deaf and the Alabama Licensure Board for Interpreters and Transliterators.