Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

The Hidden Impact of Informal Student Mentoring

4 ways schools can encourage teacher-student relationships
By Matthew A. Kraft — February 07, 2024 3 min read
How can schools make mentoring more feasible for teachers?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How can schools make mentoring more feasible for teachers?

When I was in high school, my U.S. history teacher kept a box of Quaker Oats on a windowsill in his classroom. After class one day, I asked him, “What’s the deal with the oats?”

That was the first of many long conversations I would have with Mr. Hinshaw, who was raised in a Quaker community and became my mentor. He was funny, disarming, and patient. Our talks helped me stay centered during times of personal and family challenges. He pushed me to be a deeper thinker and a better friend.

My serendipitous experience of finding a mentor at school is a common one. In a new study, Noelle Hurd, Alex Bolves, and I found that 1 out of every 6 students names a teacher, counselor, or coach as their most impactful mentor in life outside of their immediate family.

We show that students who experience informal mentoring relationships go on to achieve considerably greater academic success. Having a school-based natural mentor raised students’ GPAs and made them much more likely to attend college. These differences were not simply a pattern of higher-achieving students being more likely to have a mentor but rather the direct effects of mentors (our research included comparisons of similar students such as twins).

But we also found a concerning pattern. Though students from low socioeconomic backgrounds benefited most from the guidance and advice of school-based mentors, they also were the least likely to report having one. In fact, some schools have twice as many students reporting these natural mentoring relationships than other schools do.

So, what can schools do to make mentoring more feasible for teachers and equitable for students?

Our research points to four areas:

Recognize and reward the effort teachers invest in informal mentoring. This can range from informal, private notes of appreciation to more formal, publicly announced awards for teachers who go above and beyond.

Create more opportunities for small-group interactions between educators and students. Schools can aim for smaller class sizes for selected subjects or design advisory periods where students stay with the same teacher across several years. Outside the classroom, schools can empower students to form clubs around their areas of interest and provide stipends to faculty members who serve as club mentors and sponsors.

Foster a school environment where all students feel a sense of belonging. Teachers, administrators, and staff can participate in a collective and concerted effort to reflect on the experiences of all their students in school. One first step might be to engage in a relationship-mapping exercise to better understand which students do and don’t have a connection with a school-based adult.

Recruit and retain a more socioeconomically and racially diverse teacher workforce. Some districts are working to develop a more diverse supply of teachers from their own communities via Grow Your Own educator pipeline programs. Schools can also analyze feedback from staff working-condition surveys to ensure teachers of all backgrounds feel supported and valued. When students see teachers that look like themselves, they may be more open to developing a deeper connection based on shared identities and common backgrounds.

Our data simply reflect what has been long known in the education community. If you work at a school, you are more than an educator—you are also an informal counselor, social worker, and life coach to many students. People often think of mentorship as something that happens as part of formal programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. But informal, naturally occurring mentoring is just as important, especially when it is with educators who can support students to thrive in school and beyond.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being The Influential Allies These Schools Are Enlisting to Boost Attendance
A newly formed group of school districts will rely on the help of their communities to craft absence-fighting strategies.
4 min read
Back of a teen girl walking home from school while wearing a backpack with one strap hanging off her shoulder.
Student Well-Being Teens Are Looking for Mental Health Support Online. What That Means for Schools
Young people are turning to websites, social media, and apps for mental health support.
4 min read
Hand holding a mobile phone with an app asking "What is Your Mood Today? Measure Your Mental State" with a blue "Let's Explore" button
Student Well-Being Q&A How to Address Parents' Concerns That SEL Goes Against Their Values
A Texas instructional coach shares insights she has learned from talking with hesitant parents.
3 min read
Illustration concept of emotional intelligence, showing a woman balancing emotion control using her hand to balance smile and sad face icons.
Student Well-Being Pause Before You Post: A Social Media Guide for Educators in Tense Political Times
5 tips for educators and their students to avoid making harmful or false statements online that they later regret.
6 min read
Tight crop of a man's hands using a mobile phone with the popup box that reads "Delete post, Are you sure you want to delete this post? Cancel or Delete"
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty