I grew up within an extended network of supportive adults. I cannot remember any adult ever using the word if when discussing my academic future; it was always “when you finish college” and “when you become a professional.” It distressed me that many of the high school students I taught did not seem to have similarly consistent, nurturing encouragement.
One way I tried to give students the opportunity to experience such support was to create a classroom mentoring program. Mentors were not asked to tutor or help with homework or assignments (although some chose to do so). Nor would I discuss grades or student discipline issues with them. Their main responsibility was to encourage the students and provide positive support for their academic endeavors. The purpose of the mentoring program was not to replace parental involvement, but rather to strengthen it by providing another trusted adult, who along with me would share high expectations for each student.
Selecting the Mentors
Near the beginning of the school year, each student nominated a significant adult to be a mentor. I instructed them to nominate an adult they highly respected who cared about how they did in school and in life.
For those students who could not think of any adult they believed cared about their success, I always had a set of colleagues or community volunteers on standby. One such student was Christopher. He had been in self-contained special needs classes since first grade; however, when he entered high school, his mother wanted him to earn a diploma, not the special education certificate. Chris was hardworking and determined, but his greatest challenge would be passing the state literacy test required for graduation. One of my coworkers, an older woman, gladly agreed to be his mentor. Technically, she was the school attendance clerk, but to the students and the community she was much more. For Chris, she provided encouragement, a place to study, sometimes a ride to his rural home after one of his tutoring sessions. It took five years and six attempts on the test, but he did finally earn his diploma.
As a class activity, we would draft an invitation letter to the potential mentors and discuss our expectations of the mentors and of ourselves. Most students preferred to hand-deliver the letters, but I would always follow up with a mailed (or emailed) copy.
Responses were generally positive; most of the nominees took being invited to serve as an honor. Relatives, pastors, coaches, neighbors, and students’ former teachers have all served as mentors. It was rare that parents or guardians did not want their child to have a mentor once I explained how the program worked.
After the welcome letter, communication with the mentors was on an as-needed basis. Sometimes, I initiated contact if I noticed a student struggling or knew something especially challenging was coming. Other times, the mentors contacted me to alert me to a problem or to get an update. During the school year, parents would tell me that having the mentors helped in so many ways. Some of the single parents were especially grateful that there was another adult encouraging their child. Some mentors came to school events regularly or became active school volunteers.
Although each student had a selected mentor, sometimes the mentors acted as a group. For example, one year during state testing week, several of the mentors worked together to provide break-time snacks with inspirational notes. Among the mentors, I found a range of community and culturally relevant resources for our class. Many of them provided artifacts, gave oral histories, spoke on a variety of subjects, or demonstrated crafts. The mentors were also a source of information for me about how to connect language arts instruction to students’ lives in the larger community.
For example, one of the mentors was a local church pastor who had been active for many years in the civil rights movement. He not only knew many of the students and their families but also outlined the roles that some of those families had played in the fight for civil rights and in the development of the community. This information became the starting point for many of our classroom writing and research assignments.
At the end of the school year, the students invited their parents and mentors to celebrate their learning at a classroom showcase event. After the first year of this project, adults and students in our community began expecting the mentor invitations. Some students came to my class the first day with the names of their potential mentors and had already secured their consent to serve.
The impact on students was overwhelmingly positive. More than one student commented that while they expected me or their parents to push them (or nag them) about schoolwork, there was something different and affirming about these other adults taking an interest in their success. One student said, “It’s like having our own cheering squad!”