Encouraging Students Through a Mentoring Program

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
A teacher and student sit together in the library, surrounded by books and notebooks.

Throughout all levels of education, a consistent theme is a need for positive relationships. It has been well documented that students in today’s classrooms have already experienced or will soon experience some form of trauma, whether based on home-life experiences, through negative relationships, or due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Through these challenges and adverse life experiences, a resurgence of human connection has moved to the forefront. A critical piece of positive relationship and reinforcement in all grade levels is the act of mentorship.

Mentorship is defined as the “guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution.” Establishing a mentor program in your school has great potential and power to impact the course of students’ academic and personal paths.

What is a Mentoring Program?

For those in education, a mentor program most typically resembles a selected group of people who are chosen to spend intentional time with a targeted group of students. This deliberate time is designed for the experienced adult or older high school student in some cases to use their experiences and knowledge and help those younger than them see the benefits of their educational experience.

At its heart, a mentor program is built on trust, and as that trust is fostered and developed between mentor and mentee, students are able to make sense of their futures. Although designed to be informal during the actual process, a mentoring program is actually a formal program structured utilizing a one-to-one relationship in a workplace, organization, or academic setting.

How can a Mentoring Program Benefit Students?

Students need positive role models in their lives. In today’s classrooms, teachers are stretched extremely thin. Long gone are the days when students had access to their teachers in a small group, individualized setting. Schools are short-staffed across the country, and the lack of teachers, counselors, and interventionists has caused the need for other adult support structures to be put in place. This is where a mentor program can prove to be highly beneficial.

First, in a mentor program, students work with their mentor in a one-on-one setting and start building goals for the future. For the mentee student, this allows them the opportunity to see and hear what success looks like in a certain field or career path. This positive example from the mentor allows the mentee to see success in action. Thus, begins the process of building short-and long-term goals, developing an action plan, and learning time management and planning strategies. All of this is done in a non-judgmental zone with no pressure.

Secondly, a mentoring program can benefit students by building positive relationships founded on trust. A weekly, reliable routine between mentors and students can help students build capacity and confidence that will benefit them in other settings. Skills and strategies learned during intentional mentoring time allows students to build trust and honesty with their teachers and future employers as they develop those skills. A structured, successful mentoring program helps students feel emotionally and physically safe, allowing them to succeed in other areas of their learning.

Finally, a mentoring program gives students the chance to express and explore their self-awareness of their situation. Many students identify to participate in a mentoring program; they don’t know anything other than their own experiences. For most, those experiences are not positive, but the students haven’t quite grasped that concept. In a mentoring program, the students are open to a whole different world around them. Their new awareness of what opportunities are available can lead to the building of academic and social goals and the realization over time of their strengths and weaknesses. Mentors can help foster this growth by encouraging students to explore ways in and out of the classroom, through clubs or community programs and projects, that will help expand their interests and needs.

How to Begin a Mentoring Program at Your School

Although a mentoring program sounds ideal, establishing the program requires time, effort, and coordinated commitment to succeed. When establishing a mentor program, several factors must be considered and implemented. First, the mentorship program must be selected with clear goals, objectives, and purpose. For school-based programs, several demographic factors need to be considered. Identifying students by grade level, gender, socioeconomic status, or another identified need is critical when matching them up with a suitable mentor.

Next, the type of mentorship provided needs to be identified. Will the mentor program focus on academics, life after high school, or general youth development? Mentors then need to be recruited for the program. Adults connected to the school system are a great place to start, as are key community members who are willing to serve their local school systems.

Finally, mentor programs can come in all shapes and sizes. Personally, I have experienced two mentorship programs as an administrator: first, a mentor program targeting at-risk elementary male students was connected with athletes from our local high school. The program, named “SuitUp,” was based on specific feedback from our local elementary school that identified students who were more apt to speak with older student mentors who were also athletes, using sports as a connection to make headway into their lives.

Secondly, our high school began a program called Panther T.A.L.K (named after our school mascot) with the acronym T.A.L.K standing for Tuesday’s Are Learning with Kids. In this program, high school students are connected with students in grades third through fifth and utilize virtual meeting tools to communicate with students and help them with schoolwork, social interactions, and general best practices in critical grade levels like third, fourth, and fifth.

Ultimately, creating a mentor program in school can lead to positive outcomes for students. During most of their young lives, students are in a school setting. Providing them with targeted, intentional mentors in their lives can help them set attainable goals, build capacity and skills, strengthen relationships using trust, and develop self-confidence. In return, mentors gain the opportunity to give back to future generations.

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