Mentors Provide Safe Harbors for Students at Tennessee School

Being a teacher this school year can be sink-or-swim, but being a student largely depends on the teacher offering them a safe harbor.

When we started our year, we knew it would be different. And the changes began immediately. Mentor teachers became the crux of beginning and ending every day. To keep classroom sizes down, mentors took on various roles – from paraprofessionals, to administrators, to classroom teachers.

Keeping students safe was a top priority for our administrators at Chester County Junior High School in Henderson, Tenn. They ensured their plans were in compliance with state and federal recommendations and set into motion a new schedule and structure for our school year that would be more different than any other year.

For example, after students were dropped off by busses or their parents in the morning, they didn’t eat breakfast in a crowded gym or cafeteria like in the past. Instead, at 7:35 a.m. each day, students picked up sack breakfasts and headed to their mentor teacher’s room to eat their food. This also gave the students time to pick up laptops from their mentor, set goals, complete COVID-19 forms, and work on focus areas.

After being away from the school’s building for five months, the extra time with a mentor adult in the morning especially proved beneficial for students who had limited regular access to adults or stable meals while at home. We soon realized that we had created a place each morning where students could connect with a trusted adult. 

Since we’ve implemented these changes to the morning routine, it’s evident that students are more receptive of learning during the rest of the school day and have fewer disciplinary issues. In fact, discipline-related problems are lower than in previous years within all grades of our Summit Learning school because of these changes.

We’ve also drastically altered our lunchtime. There are no more crowded hallways, bathrooms, and lunchrooms. Instead, students pick up sack lunches and eat in classrooms with their teachers. This prevents the widespread sharing of germs, and what a positive change this made in our culture. The relationships formed at lunch with their classroom teachers has taken away the need for students to “settle down” after lunch.

Also, many teachers have found that they enjoy eating lunch with their students and the potential problems that had been dreaded with this change have never materialized. What a change in perspective! As a bonus, discipline problems have also greatly diminished because of the smaller group sizes for lunch and the improved student:teacher ratios during the day.

Yes, students wear masks. Yes, they use hand sanitizer. But providing safety measures for students has gone beyond simply keeping them safe from the COVID-19 illness. Our increased focus on health and safety has also contributed to establishing relationships between students and teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators. We get to know them and they get to know us. That trust is established because we are providing what they need – stability and safety.

Whether working in the classroom or quarantining at home as a “virtual student,” each student receives announcements on the Summit Learning platform from their teachers about that day’s assignments. Daily Task Cards provide a list of expected daily activities for each student. Teachers also create videos for students to highlight any potential problem areas that students may have and to provide additional information and support. 

All assembly programs and pep rallies have been canceled, but our administration teams and student leaders have worked together to find creative ways to still celebrate as a school. Each morning, there is a schoolwide television broadcast that showcases students performing well in academics and athletics. It also highlights positive student behavior and includes important reminders and news about upcoming events.

Each day ends for students in the same place it begins – in their mentor teacher’s classroom. For 30 minutes, students reflect on their daily goals, receive scheduled mentor sessions, and work on focus areas and checkpoints. 

Our daily schedule may look different compared to years past, but our teachers and students have established a productive and safe routine. Together, we plan to swim – not sink – through this unique 2020-21 school year.

About the author

Beth Naylor
Beth Naylor is a seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Chester Country Junior High School in Henderson, Tenn.