Students, Relationships and Authentic Work

MENTORING GEMS | By Zac Burson

WE ARE SEEING the value of authentic work on a daily basis as student develop and leverage relationships near and far to articulate their interests and pursue their ambitions. As we look at each student in the program as an individual with a panoply of strengths, weaknesses, aptitudes, and interests, we can’t help but marvel at the complexity of human beings and the infinite variables that come to play in any person’s life “pathway.” In the midst of this complexity lies incredible potential energy that when set in motion is astonishing. In recent years, I have been most amazed to see how mentors living thousands of miles away from our schools can encourage students to take important actions within their local communities. Sometimes the catalyst is a student who just needs an opportunity to think big getting a chance to network with big thinkers and sometimes it is a matter of a student needing a mentor to help her communicate those big thoughts to the people who live right down the street or just across the river from her.

Two years ago, Nicole ran away from home and dropped out of high school for over a year. She returned to school with a passion for helping kids, like her now one year old who nearly outweighed her. With the help of a telementor and support from a teacher and her parents, she began to fashion a career and education plan that would allow her to graduate from high school and pursue certification for child care work at the post-secondary level. With a plan and network of support behind her, she found an internship at a local church daycare willing to help her launch her career.

Last school year, Jasmine impressed us with her natural ability to work with celebrities and promote their work through social media. She leveraged a scholarship to a summer leadership workshop to showcase her gifts and develop more practical experience at project management. Last fall, she collaborated with a telementor to develop a career and education plan that she then presented to Millenium Studios who immediately made her the first intern of any kind, high school, college, or graduate level, to work for them. Last week I got to hear her boss talk about how Jasmine had opened up opportunities for talented students who will come after her. That was a powerful experience!

Sam, from the first time I met him in middle school, has impressed me with his ambitions. Not many seventh graders can let teachers know that their passion is linguistics, especially psycho-linguistics. As a freshman in high school, he took courses at the local college in sociology and psychology, and was not afraid of the challenges. He wanted more challenges, in fact! It was no surprise then, when he worked most effectively with one of most talented telementors in the program. Together, they connected Sam’s intelligence and passion for learning to a community of learners that included national and international experts. In fact, when they managed to correspond with Noam Chomsky, one of the most prolific linguists, political activists, and radical intellectuals of the 20th Century, I let Brian and Sam know that they had set a new standard for networking in the program.

As an eighth grader, Kevin began articulating with the help of a telementor his love for plants and animals as well as agriculture and conservation. His 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens project included the creation of an action plan that connected his interests with genuine opportunities to develop his natural abilities independently and within collaborative ventures. As a high school student, he is building networks of support that people doing important conservation work in our community, state, region, and nation. His volunteer efforts on public lands included marking trails, renovating a farmhouse that would become an educational site, cleaning up a neglected graveyard, and presenting at a state environmental education conference. His passionate regard for conservation was included in a Spring 2011 report to Congress prepared by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a national coalition of 21 wildlife, sporting, conservation, and scientific organizations. It’s no wonder that his work also landed him a job this summer with Americorps, where he is engaged in conservation work in our region.

We work with all students, including gifted and talented students and students with disabilities and talented students with disabilities and gifts we just don’t know about yet. I am blessed to get to see each day that mentors and relationships are catalysts for student action or that student actions can be the catalysts for the formation of new relationships and mentor/protege relationships. Some days a mentor in California helps an autistic student in Louisiana with a passion for the logical systems that run computers develop a career and education plan. Other days it’s a shy student in Louisiana taking a plan he made with his mentor from Pennsylvania to share with the hiring manager of a local grocery store. It is quite humbling to watch student aspirations and ambitions move forward in great leaps or grow in even small increments, sometimes after years of inaction or paralysis or dysfunction, or simple unrealized potential. I am grateful for every opportunity that we have had to link students with adults who have faith that the next generation of adults will be substantially better than the current one!

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Zac Burson is the Program Coordinator for the International Telementor Program and a teacher at Bossier Schools in Louisiana. Write to: staff@telementor.org

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