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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Taking Up the Mentoring Challenge

Concern over low student achievement led to the creation of a mentoring program that involved not only school staff but the larger community.

Mornings are the most demanding. They challenge me to assemble myself and head down a lonely, dark, yet inviting road. By 8:30 a.m. the students will arrive: one by one they will step off buses and proceed into the building. Am I up for this? Which children can I touch, help, or teach? As an administrator, I am challenged by every adolescent in the school—called upon to model what I want young people to know and understand as they grow into adulthood. No easy task!
Modeling values and ideals requires strategic planning and a barrage of resources. I realized early in my career at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Prince George's County, Maryland, that our students would only succeed with the guidance of educators committed to effective modeling.
According to our school improvement data, many of our African-American students were experiencing roadblocks to learning; a substantial gap in achievement existed between the African-American and white students. To understand the gap, we began talking to the students. Although our school is in a middle-class neighborhood, many of the African-American youngsters, two-fifths of our student body, came from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Poor home situations, the “put-downs” associated with failing grades, and the number of out-of-school suspensions and referrals all contributed to their negative attitudes. They told us they felt disinvited, alienated from school.
To extend the dialogue, research the barriers to achievement, and address the underlying forces affecting student success, we instituted mentoring in the fall of 1991. Mentoring provided us with a formal way to translate our concerns for students into a supportive structure.

Developing the Mentoring Program

Mentoring is a strategy for teaching and coaching, for strengthening character, improving racial harmony, promoting social change, assuring total quality education for all, and creating opportunities for personal empowerment. We began with a target group of 35 African-American students, identified by teachers as academically or behaviorally in trouble. Each adolescent was to have a role model to interact with and learn from. I met with individual teachers, encouraging them to “adopt-a-student.” Twenty teachers chose one or two of the students to work with. We tried not to pair teachers with students in their classes; perceived or real favoritism becomes a problem for youngsters.
We found that successful mentoring required staff development, feedback, and on-going training. We observed 10 progressive stages in the process we developed (see fig. 1). A support group of mentors emerged to share experiences, troubleshoot, and relieve the stress that is normal in the mentoring process. Although we shared mentoring mistakes, we were careful to respect student confidentiality. Prompted by teacher frustrations over unfavorable quantitative data, we developed a “no-fault” approach to mentoring, recognizing that successes, however significant to students, are not all reflected in the data.

Figure 1. Stages in the Mentoring Process

Attraction: establishing rapport and respect for one another.

Cliché Exchanges: getting to know each other, “small talk.”

Recounting: drawing from initial conversations, attempting to find an opening for relating.

Personal Disclosure: exchanging personal information; body language is less formal.

Bonding: sharing mutual ideas, “leveling.”

Fear of Infringement: returning to public distance, boundaries, and insecurities; realizing the status of the mentor.

Revisiting Framework: stabilizing feelings; developing plans that include strategies for growth with a timeline.

Peak Mentoring: being a resource, attuned to tempos and rhythms; mentee learns from mentor.

Reciprocity: give-and-take, mutual respect and admiration; mentor learns from mentee.

Closure: determining goal attainment and critiquing the experience.

Once the program was under way, I suggested mentoring to any student referred for problems, and I opened the program to any student who wanted it. Students from dysfunctional families, shy students, gifted students, students with attendance problems—all began benefiting from extra adult attention. I encouraged students to choose their own mentors, and I acted as intermediary, approaching teachers on their behalf. By the second year, two-thirds of the staff, including custodians and cafeteria workers, were involved in mentoring.
In the second year, I expanded the program further, inviting educators from other schools, central office staff, legislators, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, and scientists to participate. I sought people who were visible at the local, state, and national levels, individuals who could tell students, “You must develop appropriate skills, knowledge, and attitudes to replace us in the future.” Through “100 Men Day” and “100 Women Day,” 100 boys and 100 girls met community mentors and selected a mentor they felt attracted to because of background, common interests, or rapport. (We did require mentors and students to be the same gender.) Our directory of community volunteers grew from 10 to more than 200.
Mentors worked with their students on site, tutoring, sitting in on classes, going to P.E.—whatever was needed to address the problems a student had. With parental permission, many mentors also worked with students during evenings and weekends. They took them to ball games, cultural events, museums, or circuses, encouraging discovery and experiential learning. At the end of the year, many students, through “reverse shadowing,” accompanied their mentors to work for a day—a big boost for their self-esteem.
By portraying themselves as individuals “living up” to role expectations, mentors helped students grow. Students developed the social skills of communication, conflict management, and concern for others. They began to set goals, identify resources, explore careers, and develop a future orientation, learning to relate to the world beyond the school and community. Through tutoring and collaboration training, students achieved academic parity; through responsibility training, conflict and stress management training, and an examination of learning styles, they developed thinking and research skills. They discussed AIDS, abuse, harassment, death, and dying. They had someone who could help them identify personal values and clarify the values needed for responsible living.
Because of the bonds that developed through the mentoring process, many mentors elected to continue their mentoring even after the students were promoted to high school. We did note that if a mentoring relationship soured, it was best that a mentor not try to rekindle it, but to rely on mediation to bring agreeable closure.

Growth for All

Most participants gained from mentoring. What surprised me is how much the mentors gained. As I developed the program, I built on the work of Nel Noddings, envisioning mentors as “ones-caring” and the students as “the cared-for.” Time, however, created another vision. The students often reciprocated the caring. For instance, my mentee visited my office with kind words, flowers, and even notes throughout the year. By returning a smile, accepting me as a model, and understanding the challenges of my position, she validated my worth. Even when a situation required that I suspend her from school, open dialogue allowed us to air our feelings, confirm the disciplinary action, and improve our relationship. Many teachers reported feeling needed and valued because of their mentoring.
Mentoring allowed me to stand for something. Although I could not fix students' problems or mend every wound, I was able to listen respectfully, to be nonjudgmental, and to act as a referent. Because I am an African-American female and the parent of an adolescent male, the students considered me to be “relevant,” and I often shared my own experiences related to school, adolescence, parenting, and multicultural living. From conversations with my mentees, I learned to be more patient, and I came to understand their values, beliefs, and frustrations.
Besides the personal benefits, the mentoring project improved our state assessment outcomes for writing and reading. Attendance increased, suspensions decreased, and more cooperative learning and teaching became possible in classrooms as students developed better social skills. Most important, student self-esteem seemed to be rising. Our school took on a more personalized tone.
Mentoring also provided us with qualitative data for shaping programs and projects, for restructuring, for reallocating funds, for creating new positions, and for effectively responding to school cultures. Site-based decisions could now be driven by both quantitative and qualitative data. Three or four other schools in Prince George's County, including one high school, followed our lead and instituted mentoring programs.
The effect of mentoring is astonishing; with every phone call, giggle, and smile, mentors can align themselves more firmly with the mission of “success for all.” I believe that this mission is all-encompassing—success for students, teachers, mentors, supportive staff, and parents.
End Notes

1 N. Noddings, (1986), Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Marian White-Hood has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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