8 Ways Mentors Help Students

TEACHER PERSPECTIVE | by Joan Turek

A veteran teacher shares 8 ways the use of outside mentors can assist students inside your classroom to gain personal traction for life beyond school.

Because of the experiences my students have had working with professional mentors through the International Telementor Program, a leading academic e-mentoring program, I know first-hand the difference it makes to have students be accountable to someone other than the classroom teacher, their parents, or themselves.

1. They are real, live content experts. Mentors serve as expert guides, research partners, and professional consultants who live outside the realm of the regular classroom environment yet guide and challenge students’ daily lives in many unique ways. Working with mentors helps to encourage and motivate students to stretch their minds and experience collaboration and research in ways they cannot do within the walls of a traditional classroom or working by themselves on the Internet.

2. It’s a 21st-century thing. My vision for expansion of e-mentoring is to offer the opportunity of working with mentors to more students around the country and world by gaining funding and support from more corporations like the wonderful ones who currently support the program. I also think that more classroom teachers would be more likely to participate in mentoring if there were more lesson plans pre-written and available and if there were a training program/staff available to offer instruction to classroom teachers about the ways they can incorporate telementoring into their lessons and future projects.

3. Skills are a byproduct of real collaboration. I want my students to develop skills in collaboration, communication, research, and  writing mechanics while working with their mentors. I expect and encourage my students to interact with their mentors and to share unfinished drafts with them then to accept direction as they work to proofread, edit, and reedit until they create acceptable “final” drafts of their work.

4. Students are put in a position to overcome real challenges. It is difficult for many students and adults to accept and incorporate direction and critique from others as they edit their work and some feel threatened or insulted when they receive instructions to do so. I believe that accepting critique and collaborating with others are life skills that are very important in both the classroom and the workplace and that learning to feel empowered rather than threatened by suggestions for improvement made by experienced individuals makes students stronger learners, partners, and group participants.

5. The project-based learning involved preps students for the real world. My students develop an education and career plan through their projects. I want them to understand that their individual plan is a “working document” that will be expanded and edited as they move through high school and beyond. Some students think that they have to make up their mind about their education and career paths as fourteen and fifteen year olds and are afraid to deviate from their initial plan because they have already invested a lot of time and research in a certain direction and have told people that they want to go into a particular career. Some change their mind about their chosen career field in the middle of their research projects in my class and are hesitant to express their doubts at first because they don’t want to have to “go back and start over again” with a different career area of research.

6. The mentor-student experience helps teachers emphasize what’s important. I want each of my students to understand that it is important to me and to their future success that they be able to articulate their interests, be honest and informed about their talents and their limitations, and that they take control of their own futures. I also want them to feel safe to change their direction and modify their plans and future goals as they gain more skill and experience pursue their true education and career passions.

7. Students must learn to present their ideas. Another expectation I have for my students is that they will develop a visual presentation to accompany an oral presentation of their work and will present their work to an appropriate audience at the end of their work with their mentor. Although most students can fairly easily discuss their research and interests in an informal setting, delivering interesting, informative, confident oral presentations in front of an audience is still one of the most challenging aspects of their projects.  To support and develop presentation skills, students practice a variety of public speaking and presentation skills through both formal and informal activities including improvisation exercises, extemporaneous speaking exercises, and more formal presentation skill building exercises throughout the semester.

8. Students become more professional. I frequently remind my students that their mentors are busy professionals who should be treated with respect and that they should apply themselves so that they are not wasting their time or the valuable time their mentors have volunteered in order to work with them.

Even with encouragement from mentors and teachers, however, motivation levels, personal experiences, and other factors sometimes get in the way of full student engagement and dedication to their work in any given classroom. It is impossible to predict the investment and engagement of individual students during the time they are working on a project, so some may go full-speed ahead throughout the experience while others waiver, lose interest, or are distracted by external factors that interfere with their educational success.

Although mentors and even teachers cannot control whether or not students are fully engaged in the collaboration process throughout the experience, I sincerely hope that mentors know that they make an important difference in the lives of young people as they encourage, challenge, and guide them through their research. Even on days where mentors may feel their student is evasive, not very responsive, or indifferent or when they feel that he or she may not be “getting it” or “listening” to what they are telling them, I can guarantee that the students are still learning something through the process and feel valued and encouraged each and every time their mentor writes to them!

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