School-based mentors can be critical for students’ success. Yet not every student who needs a mentor has one, and not every educator knows how to be a mentor.
That’s why it’s important for schools to be intentional in facilitating opportunities for school staff to develop mentorship relationships with students, experts say—especially now, amid the academic and social-emotional fallout of the pandemic and the youth mental health crisis.
While some students and educators form strong connections organically, that doesn’t always happen. And students from marginalized groups—who often benefit the most from having a trusted, supportive relationship with an adult at school—are less likely to report having a mentor, research has found.
But to foster these relationships, educators often need special training in how to build strong, non-academic relationships with young people, experts say. About half of teachers said they do not have a mentor relationship with a student at their school, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey that was conducted early this year.
“We know that when there’s a trusted adult in a young person’s life, it pretty much improves everything, academically and socially,” said Torie Weiston-Serdan, a clinical assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies youth mentoring. “It provides them an opportunity to have a sounding board, someone who can provide guidance and wisdom.”
A body of research shows a laundry list of benefits that come from students having an adult in their school building who they can trust: increased attendance, better grades, higher test scores, a sense of belonging and connectedness at school, and belief in one’s self as a learner.
“School-based mentoring is something that turns around a young person who’s disengaged, disconnected,” said Mike Garringer, the director of research and evaluation at MENTOR, an organization that works to expand mentorship opportunities for young people. “The first step to getting that academic achievement is the belief that you can do it.”
In January, the EdWeek Research Center asked a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 middle and high school students if they had an adult mentor at school, defining that as someone who provides one-on-one help with schoolwork, advice on future college or career plans, guidance on social or other personal issues, and/or a sense that students can confide in them if need be. Eighty-one percent of students (who are not homeschooled) said yes.
Making sure all students have access to a mentor
But it’s that 1 in 5 teens who say they don’t have a mentor relationship with an adult at school that experts worry about. When young people already feel like they don’t belong at school, they’re much less likely to be comfortable asking adults for support, Garringer said.
“The young people who need that support the most are least likely to ask for it because they’re not sure they’ll get it when they ask,” he said. “It’s very easy to float through and not have adults notice you.”
One recent study found that Black and Latinx students, as well as students from low-income families, were less likely to report having a school-based mentor relationship that developed organically.
“Young people who grow up in more well-resourced households [are] used to asking adults for help a little bit more—it feels more comfortable to them,” Garringer said.
Also, research has found that mentors and mentees often share similar backgrounds, and the teacher workforce is comprised mostly of white women who often come from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds.
“If you’re navigating an institution that doesn’t feel welcoming, that doesn’t feel safe, it’s not going to be the best place for you to identify a mentor,” Weiston-Serdan said, adding that students of color have to navigate their teachers’ stereotypes about them.
“It’s a two-way process: Adults pick young people as much as young people pick adults,” she said. “As a former teacher, we have the same sort of blind spots that everyone else does. We’re identifying young folks that by our perception look coachable, look like they have promise.”
Past research finds that adults are more likely to mentor adolescents whom they see as being academically gifted, physically attractive, outgoing, and easy to get along with. Yet teachers often have implicit racial biases, and studies have shown that many perceive Black students as angry when they’re not.
Hiring more teachers of color could help, experts say. In the meantime, Weiston-Serdan said that many students of color rely on support from their community, including extended family, churches, and Black-led organizations that volunteer to help youth.
Having a structured mentorship program at school—rather than letting these relationships develop organically—can also help make sure students aren’t slipping through the cracks, Garringer said.
Among the 19 percent of students in the EdWeek Research Center Survey who said they don’t have a school-based adult mentor, just a third said it was because they don’t need or want mentoring from anyone. Fifteen percent said they wouldn’t feel comfortable being mentored by any adults at their school.
Others said it was because they weren’t sure how to connect with a mentor: A quarter said they didn’t really know any adults at their school very well, 24 percent said they weren’t sure how to start looking for a mentor, and 12 percent said no one seems interested in mentoring them.
The young people who need that support the most are least likely to ask for it because they’re not sure they’ll get it when they ask. It’s very easy to float through and not have adults notice you.
When those students were asked what kind of help they would want if they had a mentor, the top responses were: assistance with schoolwork, guidance on career plans, and advice on applying to college. And 38 percent said they wanted someone to listen when they needed someone to talk to.
Building a culture of mentorship at school
Any school employee can fill that role in a student’s life, experts say, but they should get targeted professional development on how to be an effective mentor.
When asked by the EdWeek Research Center who in their school building students would consider to be a mentor, the most common responses were teachers, school counselors, and athletic coaches. But students also pointed to their principal, paraprofessionals, school security guards, community volunteers, and school nurses as mentors.
“Just because you’re a teacher or an educator doesn’t mean you know how to be a mentor to those students,” said Tracy Terranova, MENTOR’s director of education partnerships. She manages a network of trainers who facilitate PD sessions for school districts on how to be more relationship-centered so that every student can identify an adult in their school lives who they can reach out to if need be.
Weiston-Serdan also offers coaching to mentors through her work as the chief visionary officer at the Youth Mentoring Action Network. Here are some of her key dos and don’ts:
- Do focus on building a relationship with your mentee. “You’re not mentoring a young person if they don’t like you,” she said.
- Do provide support, affirmation, love, and care—especially for teenagers, who might not ask for it but need it nonetheless, Weiston-Serdan said.
- Don’t try to have power and control over the relationship. She said it’s important for mentors to listen to their mentee and be more of a collaborator than a dictator.
Of course, being an effective mentor takes time, and teachers’ plates are already very full. School leaders should consider how they can embed mentoring into the day-to-day schedule without it overwhelming anyone, Terranova said. Paying educators a stipend to participate in a formal mentorship program can be a good incentive, she said.
These relationships can be extremely rewarding, said Kimberly Radostits, a Spanish teacher at Oregon Junior/Senior High School in northern Illinois and a finalist for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year. Radostits spearheaded a mentorship program for struggling freshmen at her school 15 years ago, which has yielded great academic and social-emotional success.
The relationships she’s formed through that program have been the highlight of her career, Radostits said. She keeps in touch with her mentees long after they move on to 10th grade or even graduate from high school.
“Truly, this is my life’s work, and I believe that this can make a difference in every kid’s life,” she said. “Every student in the country could benefit from just having an adult who checks in on them.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Every Student Needs a Mentor. How Schools Can Make That Happen