From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization

By Beronda Montgomery; Public Philosophy Journal | Volume 1, Number 1 | Spring 2018

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“The specific ways in which humans engage with the plants growing in their environment offer many lessons about mentoring and professional develop- ment interventions. Organisms, such as plants, which largely live out their lives in one location, are exquisitely sensitive to changes in their external en- vironment and adapt their growth to environmental cues to increase sur- vival and productivity. Plants maximize their use and acquisition of available resources and limit or ward off danger from harmful factors. Systematic as- sessment of how plants sense and respond to environmental fluctuations or transitions, as well as the care humans offer to plants, yield key lessons that can inform mentoring practices that promote the sense-driven and mentor-facilitated success of students and colleagues in academic environ- ments. Notably, the relationships between humans and plants offer inspira- tion for anticipating and employing specific means of nurturing the success of our students and colleagues. This article discusses plant biology-inspired practices for supporting the comprehensive development of a diverse range of students, academic staff, and faculty members as researchers, scholarly thinkers, and independent practitioners. Ultimately, the growth-perspective relationships with plants that humans regularly exhibit indicate vast poten- tial for our capacity for progressive support of diverse individuals in the acad- emy. In this essay, I investigate effective means for planting and cultivating growth-focused mentoring and faculty development initiatives from a con- sideration of the intersecting perspectives of plant biology and mentoring.
Many have experienced encountering a plant in an office or a home that is clearly in distress. Wilting leaves or discoloration are clear signs that some- thing has gone wrong. Almost everyone recognizes that a wilting plant means the caretaker has neglected to provide sufficient water. Keen plant caretakers or avid gardeners also often notice the yellowing of leaves as a potential signal of nutrient deficiency and a need for supplemental nutrients such as those in fertilizers. Additionally, nearly all of us have had a plant in our home that bends towards a window. Even when we are savvy enough to turn the plant to redirect its bending, we rarely stop to ponder that this is an ac- tive adaptation behavior on the part of plants seeking out light. Plants need light, which drives the production of food in the form of sugars that support plants’ growth and fitness, and they will bend themselves to get it. Human responses to plants indicate that many of us are good at reading plants’ sig- nals in order to adjust our care of them.
Other contexts, such as learning or collegial environments, do not read- ily evoke our human responses to plants, which are largely predicated on a mindset or expectation that we can support the growth of individuals or communities through careful cultivation and stewardship of the environ- ment. In learning environments with students or in relationships with col- leagues, we often readily ascribe struggles of individuals to deficits possessed by the person or personal failure to thrive. Translating our responses to plants to the care of students and colleagues through intentional mentoring holds great promise for moving from seeing deficits and failures to supporting and enabling possibilities.”

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