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Teachers have always had to find creative ways to help students without much family support: a single parent who has to work multiple jobs, a family distracted by crisis, or children removed from an abusive situation. These issues date as far back as any form of civilization, much less any form of public education.


21st-century students are dealing with even more strikes against them with parents distracted by technology, and those who are allowing devices to babysit their children. And while there has always been war, famine, and strife in the world, that information was not always as accessible to children of all ages who may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of these issues. 


All of this inundates students daily, not to mention mature content to which children can be exposed at the click of a button.


Many students do not have a caring, supportive adult in their life with whom they can discuss concerns and fears, family and peer relationship problems, or educational and career goals. Most teachers got into education because they care about students and want to make a difference in their lives, but no teacher can provide this role to all of their students. 


This is where a mentoring program can come to the rescue!


We all know that mentoring is a great way to improve graduation rates and impact student achievement, discipline, attendance, and community involvement. On a grand scale, mentoring even has the potential to impact national unemployment and crime rates. But where do you start?


If it was simply as easy as waking up one day and deciding your school would have a mentoring program, all schools would have them. But, it takes time and energy to develop a program, get it approved, plan the details, identify students, and find the appropriate volunteers.


And time is the one thing that most teachers and administrators don’t have enough of.


We have attempted to lay out some of the basics to take into consideration when bringing a mentoring program to your school or district. We’ve also rounded up some resources to assist you in planning.


Challenges


It is important to identify the students who would most benefit from having a mentor. A school will have to determine the primary goal of their mentoring program: is it academic, behavioral, social-emotional, or some combination of these.


It is also important to realize that not every student is a good candidate to benefit from having a mentor. The needs of some students will outweigh the capabilities of a mentor program. Students who have experienced severe abuse or trauma and those with significant psychological disorders are in need of highly trained professional help. The literature available about school-based mentoring shows greater complications and limited success for these students in a mentoring program.


Obtaining a release from parents or guardians is necessary before pairing a student with a mentor, but some parents will be resistant to allowing their children to participate. They may think that it reflects poorly on them as parents. Proper communication with parents is necessary. Sending a letter home for a signature is definitely the easiest approach, but arranging to meet with the parent to explain the goal of the program may be more effective. Parents need to know that the mentor is partnering with them, not judging them and not working against them.


Obviously, mentors must be screened before being admitted into a program to ensure that they do not have anything on their record that would be inappropriate. If there have been indiscretions in the past (like illegal activity or substance abuse), there must be substantial evidence to prove that these things are no longer a part of their lives.


An important part of the screening process is establishing the mentor’s dedication to the program and ability to commit long-term. The ideal mentor is one who is able to stay with a student through the fulfillment of their educational goals.


Providing adequate and proper training for mentors is essential to a program’s success. The students who may most need a mentor are often not the easiest students to work with. Mentors must be trained on how to work with apathetic, resistant, or defiant students. 


They also need to understand the legal constraints and requirements concerning confidentiality, safety, and accountability (for themselves and their mentees). Personally, they need to know how to establish appropriate, healthy boundaries.


It would be very helpful to provide mentors for the mentors (others who have successfully navigated these types of relationships before).


An advantage of going through an established mentor program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters is that they already have systems and infrastructure in place.


Pairing


When pairing students with mentors, there are different factors to take into consideration. 


First, consider the needs of the students along with the potential goals. While these may certainly overlap, one will likely stand out as the primary issues:

-academic shortcomings

-behavioral or social struggles

-disciplinary concerns

-familial deficiencies.


Of almost equal importance are things like gender, culture, personality, interests, and career.


It may seem like the obvious choice to pair students with a mentor of the same gender, but it is important to take each student’s background and history into consideration. Due to their relationship with one parent or the other, or any traumatic experience in their past, they may not be able to establish the initial trust needed for a strong mentor relationship with a mentor of the corresponding gender.


While you must be careful if using race as a factor in your program, some students will truly feel more comfortable with a mentor who comes from a similar ethnic or cultural background. There may be social prejudices deeply embedded in some students that could hinder trust. It could also be a powerful tool in providing a role model of what success can actually look like for them.


It is also very important that students be able to actually get along with their mentors. If they are going to establish trust, they are going to have to truly feel comfortable with them and have a desire to get to spend time with them, so set them up with mentors with whom they can build as organic a relationship as possible.


While it may not always be possible if students can be placed with a mentor that has similar interests or hobbies, this can help in providing a basis on which an original relationship can be built. Interests could vary from sports to hobbies, music, pop culture, or current events. 


Finally with older students, finding mentors who have succeeded in the field to which their mentee is aspiring can be particularly helpful. They can serve not only as an inspiration but can also guide them to the best college or program, provide advice, point to common pitfalls, and even help them network.


Components


While establishing a purpose for the relationship and making sure that there is some common ground or unifying factor, there are some basic elements that a mentoring program needs to be successful.


While the goal is to build a relationship and establish trust, the literature and research from established programs point towards the fact that including some form or avenue of activity is actually key to a program’s success. It is very difficult for young people to just form a bond with an adult simply because they are told to - that’s not how relationships work. 


Relationships cannot be forced, but they can be much more easily forged while playing, enjoying a common activity, or being a spectator at an event. 


Continued training and support for mentors are also important. There will likely be issues and concerns that will arise once a mentor has started meeting with a student along with questions that he or she didn’t know to ask in the beginning. It will also be important to revisit some things like legal and safety restrictions just as helpful reminders.


Proper documentation of meetings is very important. A system of how to document and where to submit is necessary. But, as we all know, there must also be some sort of follow-up to ensure that this is being done.


With all that goes into organizing, running and sustaining a successful program, in order to do it well, it will be important to have the staff to do it. Simply adding this to an administrator’s already full plate will not allow the time to properly invest in a strong program. Effectively overseeing a district-wide mentor program could easily be a full-time job. 


In order for this to happen, the mentoring program absolutely must be a priority of the district. It is going to require funding, training, support, and time.


Where to Start


The National Mentoring Resource Center is a trove of valuable information. It is sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. They provide reviews of various mentor programs and explanations on several different types of programs. You can also find online training and resources on their website.


Perhaps most helpful are the links to a wide variety of resources including a guidebook for starting a program, a handbook to use for students who mentor younger students, and ongoing training for mentors. There are also several articles on topics related to mentoring from a variety of sources.


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