A dedication to the mentors
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
A sign in my kitchen states ‘Behind every successful person lies a substantial amount of coffee’ while I agree that may well be the case, it is missing a sentence. That sentence should be “and a series of mentors who have inspired, developed and took a chance on that person”.
In my latest new series of dedication blogs, the first of which is dedicated to these five amazing individuals: My dedication to the inner circle! this one is dedicated to many people who, in a professional context have either inspired, developed or taken a chance on me as mentors. Despite being full of over-self confidence, I’m fully aware that my successes are not down to me alone. Hard work, a massive slice of luck and a number of dedicated mentors, have made me who I am today. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the guidance or the backing of a number of good mentors over the years. Too many, sadly to put in this blog. I’ve had mentors from football coaches as a kid to my recent supervisory team, all of whom have played an equally important part in my development. For example, my last supervisory team have had a considerable hand in my PhD success, but they know that and I’ve written about them in my PhD blogs. But, just like the first dedication blog I thought I’d pick this time, six people who I’d like to say thanks to, who I don’t often write about.
When you think of a typical mentor, you probably think of usually someone who is older, wiser and ultimately someone who you respect. Mentors can inspire you to be better, they can demand and push you to be better and ultimately, every mentor sees something in you that you fail to see in yourself. Mentors you don’t have to get along with or even like necessarily (but it does help), but you respect them. The mentors in this blog some I got on really well with and ultimately had a great working relationship with, some even became friends. Some, I had no formal working relationship with, and some I absolutely hated!
A good mentor will often unlock hidden potential, or part of yourself that you didn’t know existed before. They’ll ignite a fire and a drive in you because they’ve been so inspirational, either in their demeanour or in whatever it is they do. For this, I often think of two teachers that I had in High School who inspired two significant parts of my identity, Geography and Writing.
Ask any Geographer and long after their degrees they’ll still strongly identify themselves as a proud geographer. Regardless of age, fierce debate and banter between the fractions of Geographers will always be had, and god help it if you proclaim a Human Geographer as a Physical one! Or vice a Versa. I’ve always had a passion for Geography as a subject, and it’s not solely down to my Geography Teacher Mr Naughton. My love for the subject started way earlier when, as a small child, I discovered this vast, imposing dusty Atlas in our attic. I can still smell that book now as I turned its pages, it was old, so ancient! But I remember flicking through the pictures of all the different countries, reading about the vastly different landscapes and it’s people. I was hooked. The sense of adventure, a world was waiting for me to explore. Of course, this was in the days of pre-internet, a dusty Atlas and Encarta 95 was all my child mind had in my pursuit of epic travels and adventure.
Mr Naughton, however, brought the subject to life. No longer was it on the pages of a dusty Atlas and a fanciful overactive imagination of my child self, it was now real. I’ve never met a teacher who was so enthusiastic about the subject, the proudest of Geographers. Mr Naughton really fostered that passion for the subject, little did I know that I’d go on to do it at GCSE, A-Level, Degree Level, Masters Level and then finally, PhD level! My long journey as a proud geographer started with the inspirational Mr Naughton.
So while I’m a proud geographer and always will be, I’m also a passionate writer. I write blogs and novels for fun, and that comes down Mrs Bygroves. Mrs Bygroves was a strict teacher, the scousest of scouse accents, hard but fair. As I explained in my blog about why I write: Why do I write blogs? It’s a window to the emotional me! It was her who pulled me to one side after my English GCSE coursework and told me I had a gift for the written word and that I should write novels and stories for others to enjoy. So I did. I wrote my first novel and published my second on Amazon. I had discovered a critical skill that I never knew I really had, a passion for conveying stories and emotions, something that is now a massive part of my identity is all down to Mrs Bygroves and her seeing something in me, that I didn’t know myself.
Push you to your limits
So while mentors should be inspirational and make you see something in yourself, they can often go about it in different ways. Some will nurture and foster it in a friendly manner to get you to be the best you can be. Others will be harsh, demanding, thankless and at times make you hate them with every fibre of your being. At the time you wonder why they’re picking on you, why are they so harsh on you compared to everyone else and why do you not get the praise that everyone else does. Then you realise when you do reach the top of your game that they did that to push you. They saw your maximum potential and that you were way below their standards and the only way to get you to push past what you thought was your limit was to be cruel to be kind.
I’ve had two mentors like that in my life, my old commanding officer in the Air Training Corps and my former Personal Academic Tutor who became my boss as an RA. Two older men who’s stature and stance oozed authority and wisdom. Two men who have pushed me further mentally than anyone has before and probably ever will. Two people for some unknown reason I desperately wanted to impress, to prove myself to and to be acknowledged. But this mentor taught me the very definition of pushing the limits.
It may come as a shock to some of you to know that I wasn’t always the over self-confident, outspoken person I am today. In fact, many years ago, I lacked a lot of confidence in myself and around others. That all changed with one man. As one of my COs, he was always on my back throughout training and day to day life. Throwing me into the deep end with things, leading tasks, getting my voice heard. ATC rarely gave out compliments to any of us, I guess that’s the RAFs way of making you want to be better. When it did come, it was often short and curtailed (tradition of stiff British upper lip I suspect) but rarely was it ever directed in my direction. Which conflicted me. I keep getting asked to do these new tasks for which I seemed to be good at, but there was no confirmation or praise from those above. That irritated me in a way that made my already stubborn self, even more determined to succeed.
A turning point in my self-confidence comes to mind as clear as day. We were on deployment for a week on an SAS training camp in the depths of Shropshire on a bitterly cold and snowy February. We’d spent all day and night evading the infamous Landy force across the vast rolling hills and outbuildings of the training ranges. I’d been put in charge of navigation, faces covered in camo paint, boots covered in slush and mud and near hypothermic, we achieved our objective. Rescued the downed pilot and got back to base without being captured. My first real sense of achievement by putting myself out there in a position of leadership. By the time we arrived back at the barracks in the early hours, we barely got any sleep before being rudely awoken by a room inspection. I’d been chosen by him to be in command of our small dorm in a barracks. Again, I felt woefully underqualified. He comes in, nods to others a job well done, looks at my boots which to me were spotless “Dirt on them, Cliffe. Do them again! Press-ups outside, now”. “Yes, Sir!” I replied through gritted teeth. He hated me, I thought!
A few hours later, we were kitted up to go on the range. By this time the snow had started again, an icy wind ripped through the standard-issue kit with such ease I might as well have been naked for all the warmth it offered. After dissembling and cleaning the L98 and SA80 rifles in record time (still no recognition for that) as a troop, we headed out into the freezing snow on the range. To this day, it is still one of my most epic and coolest memories, the sound of gunfire, the snow falling, a Lynx army helicopter hovering off to one side, the recoil of the weapon in your shoulder. So.Much.Awesomeness!
While firing down the range, my fingers turning to frostbite (You’ve never felt anything colder than a trigger on a rifle in the snow!) in my peripheral vision I could see hands raised to the left and right of me, muffled shouts of “Jam!” and the range officer coming over to each individual. I was an awful shot, a sniper or expert marksmen I most certainly was not but I kept firing, with each shot pulling the bolt back and watching as the expended shell casing flicked and spun in the air. Load, breathe, hold breath, squeeze the trigger, recoil, bolt. Repeat, until that click on the rifle meant all my rounds in the rifle had been expended into the target a few hundred yards away. I raise my hand and raise my rifle over my shoulder to show the range officer that my rifle was empty. “Jam?… Oh, all done? Report to the CO” and with a slap on my back I exited the range, still noticing various hands raising and the range officer moving in to unjam the guns. The rest of the squad still laying prone into the snow.
Then there he was, immaculately dressed, a warm thermos in his hand steeming in the cold weather, as I present my rifle to him through chattering teeth, god I had never been so cold!
“Sir. All rounds fired, no Jam. Sir”
He gave a raised smile, which was so rare that I didn’t know if I had indeed become delirious with hypothermia, and in the most typical British Officers voice exclaims “Only one not to Jam your weapon, Cliffe. I expected absolutely nothing less from you. You’d have been the only one not to be killed. Congratulations. Dismissed”.
To me, that was the biggest compliment I had ever been given by him! That night we received word that some of us where being selected to head down south to RAF Lyneham to fly in a C130 Hercules. An unbelievable opportunity! He read the names off of the 10 lucky few, I was number 10! The next day I remember looking out of the back of the C130 as we raced over the Bristol Channel at 1000 feet. Over the rush of adrenaline, air and incredible noise of the four engines he says “Cliffe! This is what happens when you believe in your abilities. I pushed you so hard so that you’d become that. You’ve pushed yourself and others this trip to be better, I’m proud of you. Enjoy this! I’m putting you forward for the NCO course” and with a salute and a handshake it finally all made sense. I had a perceived physical and mental limit, but his was way beyond that, and I needed that tough love to reach it. It was the first time I backed myself and truly knew my capabilities. From then on he was still as hard as ever but was more forthcoming with the odd compliment, I flew with him often, practising flying over the North West of England, always demanding but boy did I learn a hell of a lot from him! I owe a lot to my years to him and to the RAF ATC in general. It taught me mental strength, leadership, the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, teamwork and plus the fantastic days flying aircraft and shooting weapons. Closest I ever got to be being a badass! They were the best of days!
Take a chance
So some mentors inspire you and some push you whereas others they toss their chips into the ring and take a gamble on you. This is a dedication to the mentors who placed their faith in you by taking some sort of risk and hoping it would pay off.
The epitome of that was my Maths teacher, Mr Coggin. He made a decision, a gamble, that ultimately had such a significant influence on my academic career. Coggin was a bit weird, a proper eco nut, way before it was socially acceptable or hipster to care about the environment. He was strange but really cared for his students, he had an engaging teaching style, but ultimately, maths was life to him. Maths, well we’ve never really got on, that and spelling are often my Achilles heel. Give me time and a pen and paper, and I’m okay, mental maths? Nope. No chance! As we got closer to year 9 SATs exams things were not going too well in maths. For those of you who don’t know, SATs were a form of exams taken in year 9 which based on your performance you got put into sets, 1 being the top, 5 being the bottom. Only sets 1 and 2 would be entered into the higher GCSE papers where you could get from A* to fail, whereas sets 3 to 5 would be entered into the intermediate and lower papers where the top grade you could achieve was a C. Therefore, in principle, easier exam but no higher than a C regardless if you aced it.
Each teacher in English, Maths and Science had to make a decision on sets before the SATs exam. I was struggling in maths and not for my lack of trying either. I knew how essential maths was as a subject. At this point, I still had dreams of being an Air Traffic Controller, I wanted to do science at GCSE and A-Level. While a C in GCSE maths is fine, I didn’t want to be a C student, I wanted to be more than that. I knew I needed a good SAT score to get into a top set, so that I could take the higher papers and get the As and Bs I wanted for A level and therefore get into University. I remember him breaking the news to me that he was considering dropping me down a set so that I’d find it more accessible, it wouldn’t look too good to have a Set 2 student do poorly. Yet, he knows I’m putting the effort in, that I wanted to be in a top set and just needed some more guidance. So, he said he was holding off on the decision, he’d give me a few weeks to improve despite the pressure from above to drop me a set. He gave me extra work, would always ask me to answer stuff in class, and I worked the hardest I ever had. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, but above all, I wanted to repay him and him putting his neck out on the line for me.
SATs came around, and I got straight 7-7-7. Top marks. I did it! I’d just got my results as I walked down the corridor and I bumped into him and told him the news. “Knew you could do it!” with a beaming smile. What a gamble! If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone on to do the higher papers in Maths and Science at GCSE and ultimately would never have taken my science A levels. While I still always struggled with Maths, I was happy to be a B student in it. Technically, you needed an A in maths to do the A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astrophysics, but somehow I was let on with my B. I strongly suspect Coggin had a hand to play in that. I still always love and feel super nerdy that I have A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astro Physics! That and Biology and Geography. All not possible without that gamble by him!
Look out for you
Mentors can often be one of those things above or all of them at once. Often what combines all mentors is a sense of looking out for you as a person and having your best interests at heart. Sure, they come at it from different angles based on their experiences and their personalities, but ultimately they want what’s best for you. Luckily, I think all of my many mentors have had that element about them, certainly my academic mentors from the entire GID staff to my former supervisors at LJMU, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Two mentors, however, stand out to me as being all those things discussed so far, inspirational, dedicated, driven, trust in you but finally, looking out for you. Dr Ruth Healey and Dr Katharine Welsh have been two of my biggest academic mentors for 9 years. I’ve gone from being a student of them both, to them both being my boss at various times, to colleagues, office buddies and then friends.
Ruth and Katharine have been incredibly supportive from day one as a student. As a boss, they were keen to develop me as best they could but in such a way that I was always looked after. A real rare commodity in this day and age when bosses actually care for their employees! Both of them had always looked out for me, especially when I moved away from Chester to do my PhD, they were still keeping in touch, being a soundboard for advice and always thinking of me when opportunities arose. Be that to present my work, do a research project here and there, work as an editor for a major journal or even job applications. I’ve been super fortunate to have many mentors like that, but the two of them have become to me, at least, the epitome of a perfect example of what a mentor should be. Whenever I mentor someone, be that students, fellow colleagues of friends, I take a leaf out of their style of mentorship. They have a bit of each and every one of those mentors discussed so far, but they put their own flair and spin on it.
My academic career thus far would have looked so very different if I wasn’t backed, supported, gambled on, guided and encouraged by those two.
Ultimately, a mentor should part wisdom, encourage, and after spending time with them, you become a better person. They and all of my mentors I owe for that! So, thank you, thank you for making me who I am, thank you for gambling on me, backing me, pushing me and seeing things in me that I didn’t see. Without you, I wouldn’t be me.