Setting Up a Mentoring Program to Encourage Students
I grew raised in a family with a large network of grownups who were always there for me. No adult ever used the word if when discussing my academic future with me; instead, it was always “when you graduate college” or “when you become a professional,” or some variation of these phrases. That many of the high school children I taught did not appear to have received the same constant, caring reinforcement as I did disturbed me.
One of the ways I attempted to provide children with the opportunity to get such support was by establishing a classroom mentoring programme. Mentors were not requested to tutor or provide assistance with homework or assignments during their time with the programme (although some chose to do so). It’s also unlikely that I’d share grades or student behaviour issues with them. Their primary role was to encourage students and provide positive support for their academic achievements, which was their primary responsibility. This programme was not intended to replace parental engagement, but rather to supplement it by giving another trusted adult who, along with me, had high expectations for each youngster.
SELECTING THE MENTORS
At the beginning of the school year, each student nominated a noteworthy adult who would serve as a mentor for them. I instructed them to pick one adult who they greatly respected and who was concerned about their success in school and in their lives.
For those students who couldn’t think of a single adult who they believed was interested in their success, I always had a group of colleagues or community volunteers on hand to help them. Christopher was one of the students. Since first grade, he had been in self-contained special needs classes; but, when he entered high school, his mother desired that he receive a diploma rather than a special education certification. Chris was a hard worker with a strong sense of determination, but passing the state reading test required for graduation would be his greatest difficulty. One of my coworkers, an older woman, was delighted to accept the position of mentor for him. Despite the fact that she was technically the school’s attendance secretary, she was much more to the children and members of the community. Chris received encouragement, a study space, and, on occasion, a ride back to his rural home following one of his tutoring sessions thanks to her generosity. Despite the fact that it took him five years and six attempts on the test, he eventually received his diploma.
Class activities would include writing an invitation letter to possible mentors and discussing our expectations of the mentors as well as our own expectations of ourselves. The majority of students chose to deliver the letters in person, but I always followed up with a mailed (or emailed) copy of the letter.
The responses were overwhelmingly positive, and the majority of the nominees considered being invited to serve as a great honour. Mentors have included family members, pastors, coaches, neighbours, and kids’ previous instructors, to name a few. Once I described how the programme operated, it was unusual that parents or guardians expressed a reluctance to have their child paired with a mentor.
The mentors were only contacted on an as-needed basis following the receipt of the welcome letter. Occasionally, I made contact with a kid when I spotted him or her struggling or when I knew something very difficult was about to happen. Other times, the mentors got in touch with me to let me know about an issue or to provide an update. Throughout the school year, parents would tell me that having mentors was quite beneficial in a variety of ways. Some of the single parents expressed their gratitude in particular for the presence of another adult who was encouraging their child. Some mentors attended school events on a regular basis or became involved in school activities as volunteers.
Despite the fact that each student had a designated mentor, the mentors occasionally worked together as a group. For example, one year during state testing week, a group of mentors collaborated to deliver break-time food with motivational messages attached to them. Among the mentors, I discovered a variety of locally and culturally relevant resources for our class to draw on. Many of them contributed items, shared oral histories, delivered talks on a variety of topics, and showed crafts, among other things. I learned a great deal from the mentors about how to relate language arts curriculum to students’ experiences in the greater community, which was quite helpful.
A local church pastor, for example, who had been active in the civil rights fight for many years served as one of the mentors for the students. Besides knowing many of the students and their families, he also described the roles that some of those families had played in the fight for civil rights and in the growth of their community, which was a nice touch. This knowledge served as the beginning point for many of our writing and research assignments in the classroom, as well.
At the conclusion of the school year, the students invited their parents and mentors to a showcase event to commemorate their accomplishments in the classroom. When this programme was launched, adults and children in our community began to anticipate receiving mentor invites after one year. Some students arrived in my class on the first day having the names of potential mentors in hand, and they had previously gained their permission to act as their guides.
The majority of students expressed satisfaction with the programme. The fact that other adults were interested in their achievement was noted by more than one student, who said that while they expected me or their parents to push (or badger) them about homework, this was refreshing and encouraging. “It’s almost like we have our own cheering squad!” one youngster exclaimed.