When you’re an elementary teacher with 20+ students in your classroom for most subject areas, you’re already strapped for time daily. Add 1:1 mentoring meetings with each student every week, and you might find yourself needing Hermione Granger’s time-turner.
Principal Erica Lilly embraced mentoring from the start, but knew she wanted to try something a little different. When she and her staff at South Shaver Elementary School started planning to implement mentoring with their grade 4 students, she placed priority on creating an environment and structure that allowed mentors to form deeper personal relationships with mentees.
“As hard as teachers work, there are too many kids [in one classroom] for someone to make a real personal connection with. Similar to small-group instruction, if I want a deep level then I have to get the numbers down,” Principal Lilly explained.
The result of their intentional planning is a mentoring program that includes 10 adult facilitators from across the school, each one paired with three to five students. To give context, South Shaver currently has 44 students in grade 4 participating in Summit Learning, which the district calls the Connect program. Mentors include the participating grade 4 teachers as well as instructional coaches, the school counselor, and others.
These mentors, most of whom have additional flexibility in their schedule, typically meet with mentees in the school cafeteria each week. Students have a set mentoring schedule, so they know where to show up and when. There’s flexibility here, though, if teachers or students need to move things around. And keeping things flexible is just one of six valuable lessons that South Shaver educators have shared about their experiences with mentoring at the elementary level.
1 – Stay Flexible: Special Education Teacher Danielle Ryder, who mentors two bilingual students, had a conflict with her mentoring and teaching schedules. So she reached out to Principal Lilly for help, and they worked with the students and their teachers to find a solution.
Trial and error is okay. Yes, it’s smart to have a plan and a structure when starting out. But if needed, move things around until you find a sweet spot that works, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
2 – Listen, really listen: Listening (and not reacting or fixing) is fundamental to developing a mentoring relationship built on trust. Especially when the conversation strays to social and home topics, it’s important to remember that sometimes students just want to be listened to and heard.
It also helps to take notes about academic and personal topics that arise or seem important to a student during a session. Instructional Reading Coach Korie Isaguirre takes personal notes in the mentoring tool, but she also sends the student a recap after their session. As Korie explained, “I send each mentee an email so they can look again in class. This validates that I was listening, and it’s also good for terrible memories. And it holds me [as a mentor] accountable.”
3 – Teach basic life skills: By the time students reach high school, they’ve likely established some basic life skills — organization, balancing social activities with study time, etc. But elementary students need explicit instruction in these skills. Listen, observe, and find out what basic skills a mentee needs to learn, then model and scaffold. Now’s the chance to help students learn early, so that they’re ahead of the game in middle and high school.
4 – Translate concepts: When introducing a new concept like mentoring, think about what terms need to be introduced and explained to students (a mentoring check-in, for example, is the 1:1 meeting that takes place between a mentor and mentee each week). This holds true for both bilingual and English-speaking students.
Especially for bilingual students, students may also feel uncomfortable talking about certain topics or responding to open-ended questions. Consider the student’s background and culture, and think ahead of time about how they might respond in a particular environment or to a specific question. Go the extra mile and collaborate with their teacher or family member to get perspective on how best to communicate.
5 – Respect the individual: This one may be a given, but it can be too easy to lose patience, especially when working with a student who has a behavioral issue or needs more targeted attention. Truly helping any individual starts with active listening, which goes hand-in-hand with showing them respect. As Danielle explained, “Focus on developing the relationship and everything else falls in place. Even with my own students in Special Education, I always say you’re not going to fix any behavior if you don’t respect them first.”
6 – Create sense of belonging: An important part of mentoring is helping students nurture a sense of belonging. Because small groups of mentees and mentors gather in the cafeteria during the week, Korie saw an opportunity to “break bread” as a group. Before Christmas Break, the mentors hosted a “free meal” day with their mentees, a meal they all shared together in a special group celebration.
The mentors used this reward intentionally as a way to recognize mentees’ hard work over the first few months. But more importantly, this free meal allowed students to interact in a communal setting with peers and adults outside of their normal classrooms. Finding ways to bring different students and educators together, on a regular or occasional basis, can help create a culture of trust and comfort at the whole-school level.
While not exhaustive, the lessons shared here provide a strong foundation for getting started with or refining mentoring in your elementary school. Borrow one or all, and share your own mentoring lessons on Facebook or Twitter with #MentoringMonth.
Note: South Shaver Elementary School is one of 33 schools in Texas’ Pasadena Independent School District (PISD) using the Summit Learning approach, which they call the Connect program. PISD is one of the largest school districts in the U.S. using the Summit Learning program, which it introduced to some schools in 2015. The 2018-19 school year has been South Shaver’s first as part of Connect.