What I learned: 4 Tips for Strengthening Mentoring Relationships

During the last hours of this year’s spring break, I found myself cramming for my first mentoring 1:1s of the year. Due to unfortunate circumstances, I needed to take over mentorship for one of our teachers. I had only a few days to prepare myself to formally mentor for the first time. 

My strategy was simple and transparent to my mentees: they still had a lot of growing and hard work left in the year, and we needed to form a trusting team as quickly as possible to reach their goals.

To do this, I used a recommendation from Summit Learning for building trust built on the research of Bryk & Schneider (2002). These four criteria became our starting place for each meeting: respect, competence, personal Regard, and integrity.

According Bryk & Schneider’s research: ‘Relational trust’ refers to the interpersonal social exchanges that take place in a school community (in the classroom and staffroom), and is based on four criteria:

  1. Respect involves the recognition of the role that each person plays in the learning.
  2. Competence in the execution of a role relates to the abilities that one has to achieve the desired outcomes.
  3. Personal regard for others is the perception of how one goes beyond what is required in his or her role in caring for another person.
  4. Integrity is the consistency between what people say and what they do. Where relational trust is present, then expertise is recognized and errors are not only tolerated, but even welcomed.”

Each student responded differently to these criteria, but four students in particular solidified my understanding and appreciation of the mentoring process. Here’s how Erin, Dennis, Val, and Sims helped me strengthen my mentoring relationships.

1. Build Respect for Each Other

Erin let me know she didn’t like me from the beginning. Her minimal responses and reluctance to join me for check-ins were punctuated by a walkout in our third meeting.

I kept trying. Two check-ins later, I high-fived her in the hallway for passing three focus areas in one week, and our next check-in began with her very sweet apology for being rude and a hug.

Erin and I built trust in four mentor check-ins because I consistently maintained and requested respect for the role she and I had to play as student and teacher.

2. Reinforce Belief in Your Mentee’s Competence 

Dennis didn’t think there was a way to catch up from the slow pace he’d set by spring break, but he responded immediately to my reassurance of his competence.

I explained how I knew he already possessed all of the necessary potential for being successful well beyond the conservative goals he’d set for himself, and that I was serious about and experienced in assisting students in discovering and unlocking their potential.

Later in the same check-in we calculated that he would need to consistently pass four Focus Areas each week while continuing to improve his Cognitive Skills through projects in order to earn minimum credit for the year.

Dennis’ willingness to trust my ability to recommend successful strategies led him to meet those minimum requirements early enough to set and meet new goals for exceeding his grade goals for the year. We celebrated each step more than my other 21 mentees combined.

3. Demonstrate Personal Regard for Each Other

Val sat down for our first check-in with an intimidating ability to explain, defend, and provide documentation for her goals, plans, and strategies that had already set her on a path to being one of our highest achieving students this year.

In class, she was driven, quiet, and removed. During our second check-in I reminded her I was expecting both of us to remember that we are human beings with more happening in our lives than what was graded in the Platform or observed during the school day. I then apologized for being less prepared and more tired than I had hoped due to having a sick toddler at home.

Over the next three check-ins, she progressively shared more of her interest in and reluctance to forming friendships at school due to the amount of help she provided to her family at home and during the summer assisting with the family business.

She didn’t see how her commitment to academic success and her family allowed time for friends. Val trusted me because of our regard for each other. I recommended a small step to making more and better friends by offering to peer tutor and later in the year she began tutoring some of her peers.

4. Show Integrity

Sims was my personal cheerleader. He reminded me daily that showing up and following through mattered. Mentoring was incredibly meaningful and rewarding for me, but I frequently wrestled with other priorities for my time and energy.

Sims seemed to know when I was falling behind. Sims waited on our meetings to really engage in his schoolwork, and he politely reminded me anytime I ran late in making time for him. Without fail, once I fulfilled my commitment he would diligently do the same.

At the risk of sounding like the mentee, I think Sims helped me and all of my mentees build trust more quickly through a clear, no-excuses approach to integrity.

BONUS: Mentoring Checklist

Mentoring well is a challenging endeavor, but if it is useful to anyone beginning their journey with a new group of students soon, I’ve created a simple checklist for mentoring. Always start at number one.

Mentoring Checklist:

  1. Establish Expectations:
    1. Respect
    2. Competence
    3. Personal Regard
    4. Integrity
  2. RUOK: Are you OK? Regard in action. From experience, never accept a one-word response without a gentle fight; always be willing to be a little bit vulnerable yourself and share that vulnerability without expectation of reciprocation.
  3. Reflect on Last Week’s Goals and Plans: Review what was accomplished and discuss what did and didn’t work.
  4. Assess Current Status: Take a 100% objective look at what work has been completed; no good or bad judgement words are allowed.
  5. Prioritize and Set New Goals: Take what you’ve learned from steps 3 and 4 and use them to discuss a plan of action for the coming week.
  6. Summarize Notes and Make a Plan: Keep track of your discussion and commit your plans to paper to keep accountability.
  7. Get Meta-Cognitive: Is the meeting working for your mentee? Is there anything they or the mentor needs to do differently to make a better meeting next time?

A New Year of Promise

Spring break isn’t an ideal time to be planning how to build new, effective mentoring relationships. Despite receiving excellent training, I felt woefully lacking in personal experience. Regardless, I dove in with the goal of building trusting relationships as quickly as possible and was reminded by mid-March why I keep returning to education every August.

Mentoring is a key part element to Summit Learning student success. Learn more about how students benefit from mentoring on the Summit Learning blog.

About the author

Abel Cass
Abel Cass is an instructional coach at South Houston High School in Pasadena, Texas. He has found the Summit Learning team and community invaluable partners in better meeting the needs of his students since his first visit with them in 2014. Abel graduated from Baylor University, taught visual art and graphic design before transitioning to classroom technology integration support, and he will complete both a Master’s degree in Education Leadership and his principal certification in 2018. He’s thankful there is more than one time, place, path, and pace to learn and for an ever expanding and exceptional network of collaborators. He thinks he’s just getting started.