A Lesson in Mentoring

Helping at-risk kids stay on track by reminding them (and ourselves) of the power of change

December 30, 2015 10:30 PM
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By Leah Shafer

Leah Shafer is a writer for Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

What can I say in under 10 minutes to motivate an at-risk student?

This question echoed in my head one day last month as I waited for the next middle schooler to take the seat beside me. I was spending the morning at an underperforming Boston school, participating in an alternative form of report card conferences. In this model, rather than meet with teachers or guidance counselors, students discuss their grades with outsiders. If a student knows that the adult she’s meeting with doesn’t have the power to assign or change her grades, the theory goes, she’s more likely to take agency over her performance at school.

While I didn’t know these sixth and seventh graders, I’m no stranger to the school; I spent last year tutoring and mentoring the third-graders as an AmeriCorps member with City Year, which ran the report card conferences. The organizers told me and the other volunteers the rules for the day: ask questions, stay positive, and be action-oriented. There are six more months left in the school year for students to turn things around.

When Ayana* sat down, I smiled, shook her hand, and pointed to the first section on her report card. “Why don’t you start by reading this part to me?”

Slowly, Ayana and I worked our way through her grades, which included not just coursework, but also attendance and behavior — three indicators that City Year uses to track student performance and lower the dropout risk. I learned that she had already missed five days of school out of 50, that her teachers found her distracted in class, and that she had a D in math and an F in science.

I also learned that while Ayana had explanations for all of these concerns, she hadn’t thought about how she could work through them. “I’ve had doctor’s appointments,” she said when I asked about the absences — but she admitted they hadn’t taken up the entire school day. We talked about how confusing schoolwork can be after just one day absent. She agreed to try to come in late or leave early when she has appointments.

When I asked why her teachers said she has trouble focusing, she told me she has ADHD. “Have you told your teachers that?” I asked. She shook her head. “How can your teachers help you if they don’t know how you learn?”

Near the end of our conversation, Ayana told me that her post-high school goal is to go to art school, and that she takes art classes on Saturdays. “That’s awesome!” I told her.

“Yeah, but all I want to do in math is draw,” she said. We discussed ways that she can use art to stay focused in her classes, such as giving herself 20-second “doodle breaks” when her mind starts to wander.

When my last conference ended, I sat down to write notes to the students I met. Not all of them were struggling like Ayana. Shawn was new to school, but already making friends. Elijah’s teachers called him a role model in class. He wants to go to Harvard and become a chemist. (If that doesn’t work out, he said, he’ll go to Boston College and play football.) But both had areas where they needed improvement; Shawn needed to improve his English grade, and Elijah admitted that he almost never does his math homework.

“I really enjoyed meeting you today!” I wrote in my cards. I reminded them of the suggestions we’d talked about, and I expressed my confidence that they could achieve their goals. But I couldn’t help wondering how effective these conversations would really be. I might have been able to offer these students a fresh perspective, but I wouldn’t be around to remind them to take ownership of their schoolwork.

With my notes finished, I went outside to the playground, where the students I mentored last year, now fourth-graders, were having recess. I was excited to see them, but also apprehensive about how they’d react — it had been five months since we’d last seen each other. One of them, Jayla, had been anxious last year and grew increasingly reliant on me, and I’d struggled to find ways to make her more independent. Now, I worried that she would get clingy or upset when she saw me.

During my time with City Year, my supervisors continually stressed that change is hard. It takes time. You may tell your students the same thing every day for months, and it won’t click for another three years.

Jayla screamed when she saw me, hugged me, and jumped around. But then, after a few minutes, she skipped off to play by herself. When recess was over, she approached me again. “You’re leaving?” she asked. I prepared for her tears.

But instead — “Bye!” She threw an arm around me in a quick side-hug and ran to line up with her class.

Change takes time, I thought, but it can happen. I hope the middle school students I met with remember that.

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.