Reader and Industry Forum

Mentorship is Both a Role and a Skill

reader and industry forum

Mentorship is Both a Role and a Skill


Why did you become an eyecare practitioner? Even more relevant, who influenced you in becoming a contact lens practitioner? Your career development is guided by personal interests and also by environmental forces such as family, teachers, community leaders, and co-workers. For most eyecare practitioners, role models and mentors have provided guidance and encouragement at critical points in their career.

Think of three individuals who have influenced your career choices. For each one, reflect on how that person influenced your career (e.g., Nancy Smith's enthusiasm for presenting a contact lens option to timid, high-myopic teenagers and the impact this had on their self-esteem inspired me to expand my own contact lens knowledge). What type of relationship did you have with each mentor: formal (e.g., mentor assigned to you) or informal (e.g., professional colleague with shared interests)?

Career Choice Force Fields

In this era of economic upheaval, three force fields complicate decision making about your career.

1. Student Debt Rising costs of education have resulted in staggering student debt (Baum, 2000; McClure, 2000) that may influence choices of educational institution and type of practice setting. Optometry graduates have a reported $100,000 to $150,000 of debt (Jurkus et al, 2003; Bitton and Jones, 2009). Choices of institution (e.g., state versus private) and practice setting are influenced by an awareness of the pending debt. Attitudes about money differ among generations, and new graduates are more accepting that debt is a part of advanced education.

2. Generational Differences Generations X and Y (those born after 1982) are comfortable with relocation in search of better opportunities and therefore are less loyal to their employers and current practice setting.

3. Multiple Practice Settings Today's eyecare practitioners have a myriad of practice options to choose from including solo, group, commercial, military, hospital-based, and educational settings. Additionally, any of these options can be full- or part-time, allowing even further flexibility for family and private lives. There is no owner's manual for your eyecare career; however, mentors can help you navigate successfully through the force fields and arrive at an admirable destination.

Role of Mentors

How can a mentor help you find your way through the force fields? One way to view a mentor's role is the Johari Window that displays our self knowledge and what mentors/colleagues know about us (Figure 1) (Luft, 1984).

Figure 1. Johari Window of Self and Mentor Knowledge.

All of us have self perceptions regarding our professional strengths and weaknesses. Mentors can confirm professional strengths and help us see “blind spots” in our self perceptions (i.e., areas for growth). How did the three individuals who influenced your career help you identify blind spots or strengths (e.g., expand your contact lens knowledge)? Mentors can also inspire us with a vision of who we could become professionally.

Although we may not be conscious of it, we all have dual needs: to find mentors and to be mentors. We seek mentors throughout our lives for personal and professional enrichment. As we advance, we will encounter opportunities to be a mentor. So is mentorship one of your roles as an eyecare practitioner? Optometric practitioners can be a mentor to colleagues, co-workers, and patients while optometric educators can additionally influence students. Our verbal and nonverbal behavior communicates personal integrity and work ethic to those around us, often without our awareness. These traits inspire respect and trust, which are the foundation of a good mentor/mentee relationship. Many incoming optometry students state that their family optometrist was a major factor in their career choice. Many resident candidates mention an educator or a supervising clinician who influenced their decision to further their education.

AOCLE: A Model for Mentorship

The Association of Optometric Contact Lens Educators (AOCLE), a non-profit organization bringing together contact lens educators from schools and colleges of optometry throughout North America, has recognized the importance of mentoring as a core organizational value.

The organization chooses a theme to highlight current contact lens educational challenges for its annual meeting, which is hosted by a different institution every year (an itemization of these themes can be found on the AOCLE Web site at under AOCLE history). Meeting participants have opportunities to work alongside each other, breaking down the traditional academic barriers. Thus, new contact lens educators can be coupled with more seasoned colleagues, which may lead to networking and mentorship opportunities.

The AOCLE's George Mertz Memorial Award allows new/ young contact lens educators to attend their first AOCLE workshop and jump start their networking with other contact lens educators. The opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues is a source of validation for educators. The AOCLE's Lifetime Achievement Award, recently awarded for the first time to Dr. Les Caplan, recognizes extraordinary contributions as a mentor to contact lens educator colleagues.

Mentoring is traditionally viewed as a one-to-one relationship, but it also can exist among organizations. The AOCLE has had a long-standing cooperative history with its industry partners, a somewhat unusual aspect of mentoring. Because the contact lens market evolves at such a dizzying pace, educators need to be kept abreast of new developments in a timely manner. Industry colleagues, armed with the knowledge of the latest contact lens developments, help educators recognize “blind spots” in their contact lens teaching/learning programs. The ultimate goal is to keep AOCLE members current professionally and to explore efficient methods for teaching students.


Mentors help us navigate successfully through the force fields that affect our careers and enable us to “see” blind spots in our self perceptions. AOCLE has identified mentoring as a core organizational value and strives to encourage both mentors and mentees through its annual meetings and awards. The realization that we have the potential to be a mentor to our colleagues, interns, staff, and even to our patients (we might inspire a patient to become an eyecare practitioner) should leave us with a sense of great pride. When we consider contact lenses, the difficult fits are what challenge us the most, but more importantly, they inspire our patients to accept the benefits that contact lenses have to offer.

All of us should be thankful for the mentors and colleagues who have helped us find our professional career paths, and in turn we should share our wisdom with colleagues who approach us seeking a mentor. CLS

To obtain references for this article, please visit and click on document #173.

Dr. Bitton is an associate professor of optometry at the École d'optométrie, Université de Montréal and is the externship director. She is also chair of the AOCLE. Dr. Littlefield is director of the Academic Center for Excellence in Teaching (ACET) at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. More information about ACET and Dr. Littlefield is available at