Mentoring has always been Janelle Ruiz’s favorite part of teaching.
The seventh-grade science teacher loves taking the time to individually connect with a student and help them grow in all aspects of their life. But for the first part of her teaching career, there never seemed to be enough time in her busy day to truly be a mentor.
“I found that sometimes I would get too preoccupied with the content or trying to teach them, that I missed forming relationships with them,” Ruiz said.
That changed when Rhodes Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona, partnered with Summit Learning at the start of the 2018-19 school year. Mentoring is an essential component of the program and at least 10 minutes is set aside each week for students to have one-on-one time with their mentor.
It didn’t take long for Ruiz to notice a major difference during the first school year with a consistent mentoring routine — and the positive ripple effects continue to reveal themselves as her mentees grow older.
“They’ve been gone for two or three years now and they’re still contacting me and wanting to keep in touch with me because we formed that relationship,” Ruiz said. “The relationships are deeper now. It’s not just me forming a relationship with one or two particular kids. It’s me forming a relationship with all of my students.”
As Rhodes principal Patty Christie watched those profound connections take place between teachers and students, it validated her long-held belief that focusing on relationships leads to overall success for a school. Since joining Rhodes in 2016, Christie has placed an emphasis on the social and emotional needs of her students and staff and was thrilled to work on those areas through mentoring.
“(Mentoring) is a purposeful approach to connecting with every single child,” Christie said. “It truly is us as a family working together to help our students.”
Without knowing it, Rhodes was preparing itself to handle upcoming disruptions to the school year that nobody saw coming. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Rhodes to close its school building in March 2020, the school was able to smoothly pivot to remote learning largely because of the emphasis it had already placed on relationships.
Instead of hastily forming new ways to connect, mentees were able to keep their regularly scheduled meeting times with their mentors and they worked through any difficult moments together.
“We take the time that’s needed to focus on that student and assure them that we’re here for them, that they’re not in this alone,” said Elizabeth Kittridge, an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Rhodes. “Especially with distance learning, it can feel so overwhelming and they really needed that adult there saying, ‘Let’s take a deep breath. One assignment at a time. You will get this done.’”
As the months passed during the pandemic, it was evident that the students’ eagerness to engage was helping the teachers just as much as the students.
“Teachers truly don’t realize how much students want a relationship with their teacher, and how important we really are to the learning process,” Kittridge said. “Students want to feel connected to an adult … and I think students get a real kick out of learning a little bit more about you.”
While teaching from her home, Kittridge would often let her dog be visible on her screen. Something as simple as that allowed her students to view her as more than simply their teacher.
“Even for just a moment, we can talk about animals and being dog people,” Kittridge said. “It gives them that connection that makes them all the more likely to ask for help when they need it, and more likely to check in with me. It gets to a point where they don’t want to let me down because we’ve built that relationship.”
With teacher-student bonds established, Rhodes has been able to focus on building a learning environment that is forward-thinking and doesn’t rely on traditional academic methods. When Christie visits classes, she loves observing students working on a variety of subjects at their own pace to develop mastery and finding ways to connect their lessons together.
“I can’t even imagine going back to the old way,” Christie said. “There is a new way to provide learning for students and that is this blended environment of using what technology has to offer. Instead of thinking about individual concepts that they need to memorize, it’s about problem-solving and uniting content into a larger picture.
“They’re no longer thinking about math in isolation, but rather how math and science all fit together, and how social studies and English are united. For me, it is exactly where we need to be going because the world is going to be so different when our students leave high school.”
Ruiz said her science instruction has shifted from being more “task-driven” before Summit Learning to involving more critical thinking for her students. Ruiz is able to make her projects more student-centered by providing specific resources that best meet their individual needs.
“Before we used Summit, there were a lot of students that kind of fell through the cracks,” Ruiz said. “Them being able to check in with an adult and make a specific plan just for them to get caught up has really helped give them that agency to speak up and improve their academic success, as well as just their confidence in general.”
As Rhodes enters its fourth year as a Summit Learning partner, teachers are excited to enhance their relationships and provide more ways for students to display the Habits of Success that will lead to positive results this school year — and for many years to come.
“I really feel like I’m taking the time to address the whole student, and not just a test score or number,” Kittridge said. “I now think more about what their needs are, where their learning gaps are, where their strengths are, and individualize things more for each student. It can be overwhelming to see that sea of faces in a classroom. But with mentoring, you’re zooming in and truly being present for that one kid in that one moment.
“And that feels really, really good. That’s probably the best thing about teaching.”
About the school:
Rhodes Junior High School is a public school that serves 957 students in Mesa, Arizona.
● 77% Free or Reduced Lunch
● 40% English Learners
● 15% have an Individualized Education Plan
Watch this video to learn more about Rhodes Junior High School.