Commentary: Mentoring Can Be a Powerful Force in Kids’ Lives. Here Are 3 Ways Mentorships Benefit Students — and 3 Benefits for Teachers

Summit Learning via YouTube

This essay originally appeared on the SummitLearning.org blog.

Mentorship in middle and high school has the power to impact the course of students’ academic and personal life trajectories. Human connection built on trust is the glue that binds students’ academic and personal lives and helps them make sense of their futures; it’s also the reason that most teachers enter education in the first place.

One of three foundational components of the Summit Learning experience, 1:1 mentorship allows all students the chance to meet with a dedicated teacher or school leader weekly as part of their academic and personal development.

“With Summit, every child is mentored weekly … they have time with their teacher, and they are met where they’re at, which allows them to have that authentic dialogue,” says Principal Norma Penny with the Pasadena Independent School District (PISD) in Texas, which has implemented the Summit Learning Program in 23 schools districtwide.

Summit CEO and co-founder Diane Tavenner says teachers are able to reach all students through mentoring. “When I teach, I want to know my kids, I want to know what their hopes are. What I love about the opportunity for a whole school to be a personalized learning environment is that [desire] comes true … I can really invest in all of my students.”

The benefits of mentorship are tangible for both students and teachers.

3 Benefits for Students

1. Individualized Goal Setting: Meeting students where they are as developing individuals is where personalized learning begins. Each week, students meet with their mentors to assess their academic progress and to set individual short- and long-term goals, develop an action plan, and learn time management and planning strategies. This intentional, weekly interaction helps students develop a universal set of skills — goal setting, adaptability, and reflection — that are necessary for success in college, career, and life.

2. Relationships Built on Trust: The reliable routine of mentorship allows students to build a relationship with their teachers built on honesty and trust over time. Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder of Turnaround for Children, reiterated the importance of these relationships of trust in a recent interview on the Summit Sparks podcast.

“Can you imagine trying to build self-regulation or executive function in an environment where children did not feel physically and emotionally safe?” Cantor asked. “Children need to have that overall sense of safety in the environment, and they need to have strong relationships with adults and peers to set the stage for the kind of learning that we want them to do.”

Mentors serve as a thought partner for students on their academic journey and help empower students to become autonomous learners and agents of their own change. They express understanding of students’ aspirations and fears, and they support their success by acting as advocates for students’ best interests.

Jacqueline Castro, a former eighth-grade student at R.H. Lee Elementary in Chicago, described her mentor relationship: “Now that I have my mentor, it helps me a lot; if I ever have something on my mind and I can’t do my work, I just go to her and let it out and she’s there.”

Building relationships with students includes alignment with home life, achieved through regular communication and periodic mentor-student meetings with parents and guardians.

3. Developing Self-Awareness and Fostering Passions: An essential component of 1:1 mentoring sessions is weekly self-reflection, which give students the chance to build awareness around their ability to set and follow through on academic and social goals. Students who practice individual goal setting and reflection over time are better able to accurately assess their strengths, as well as recognize and act on areas for self-improvement. Exploring personal interests goes hand-in-hand with identifying strengths, and students are encouraged by their mentors to explore ways both in and out of school — through clubs or community programs and projects — that help build and expand personal interests and passions.

3 Benefits for Teachers

1. Reaching All Students: Mentorship offers a structured, consistent time and space for teachers to get to know the whole student, apart from a whole-class or even small-group setting.

“That is the dream of every teacher — to be able to reach every single pair of eyes that are looking up at you and give them the best education possible,” said Catherine Birch, a PISD teacher and 2018 Summit Learning Spotlight recipient.

Sustained knowledge of what’s happening with students on a social and emotional level, alongside performance in the classroom, sets teachers up for success when making informed decisions on best interventions for students who may be struggling.

In addition to the personal connections made during 1:1 meetings, mentors have access to their mentee’s assessment data for each subject and can collaborate with other grade-level teachers to better set learning goals for students.

Kathleen Bourret, an English teacher at Lee Elementary School in Chicago and Castro’s former mentor, described the benefits of acting as a coach in the classroom: “Students have somebody to say, ‘What is your goal today? What are you going to work on? What’s your focus?’ [Someone] to be a thought partner in their curriculum.”

2. Opening Doors to Possibilities: Through mentorship, educators have a unique opportunity to help open doors to future academic and career possibilities and cultivate a student’s sense of purpose. Regardless of their academic achievements, all students have an authentic curiosity and desire to better understand their world.

Knowing each student’s interests, strengths, and goals allows mentors to encourage students to engage in school- or community-based activities that help build skills toward a known passion, or to try new activities and expand a student’s self-awareness and sense of self-efficacy.

3. A More Rewarding Teaching Experience: A significant part of mentorship is helping students develop Habits of Success, the dispositions, mindsets, and behaviors that students need to make a successful transition from high school to college and careers. Just as students are more likely to succeed in school when they’ve had opportunities to develop life skills such as self-directed learning and a growth mindset, educators who explicitly help students develop these habits are more likely to be successful in impacting every student.

Birch says that through mentoring, she can now “reach every single pair of eyes” in her classroom, as she dreamed of.

“It not only challenges them, but it challenges me,” Birch says. “I have grown more as a person in these last three years being a personalized learning teacher … I will never go back to the traditional classroom.”

A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community’s stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, she was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island.

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