Want to Be a Better Mentor to Students? Keep These Tips in Mind

We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking school is a straight line for children. They go from home to school and back again, and in between all the little things are taken care of — food is on the table, parents are present to offer support, homes are stable and warm.

Tips for teachers who want become mentors to help students overcome challengesWell, life adds a lot of curves to this process, and it’s our responsibility to face this reality, both formally and informally. No matter how apparently strong or stable a school or community may be, there will always be children who need more than teachers.

They need mentors. Today I’ll share a few thoughts on how to be a great mentor.

Start with a historical perspective

We tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses. Somebody’s always waxing poetic about how life used to be so much simpler and easier “X” amount of years ago. The reality, though, is that the level of challenge our children face isn’t markedly higher than it was 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

What has changed is that schools now formally address these challenges, which creates the impression they exist in greater numbers. Also, our hyperconnected culture has us thinking negative things are more prevalent today. What’s different is that we are far more open about the challenges and issues facing today’s children. Don’t get sucked into the “World Is Going Down the Tubes” crowd.

Lean on your school’s support structure

Each school district should have people, preferably working as a team, assigned to help children navigate the world. This can include school counselors, student wellness guides and child study team members.

These colleagues should be readily available, with time set aside to work with children, and be tilted toward helping all children improve their school experience. If you need relevant background to help a child, these are the people to turn to. Aside from their individual work, they should be presenting strategies for the whole faculty to consider.

Make yourself available

Don’t underestimate your power to influence your students. In his book “Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho,” Jon Katz recounts the school experience of two self-described “computer geeks” and how a teacher without great fanfare or formal structure gave them a place to tinker during their lunch time.

Make your time and room available to children, and you’ll find students who need a mentor/role model will gravitate to you. They may find the cafeteria, with its social pecking order, too much to bear, and they’ll bring their lunches, their voices and their need for a listening ear.

Be the squeaky wheel

If you find your school is leaving students behind when it comes to mentoring/support services, make it a point to speak to a school administrator. My experience has been that good and decent administrators lose sight of these needs as they become overwhelmed with all the demands (and paperwork) set upon them. A friendly voice advocating for children may be all that is needed to help jump-start the process.

Work with — not against — parents

The home, more often than not, tends to work against the struggling student. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find as much help coming from home, and be prepared to guide and work with the parent as much as the child.

I have found that most parents welcome well-intentioned, considerate and nonjudgmental guidance. Make yourself available to them, and they’ll respond in kind.

Go where the good people are (and encourage the students to do the same)

The most consistent piece of advice that I share is that we take on the attitudes and actions of the people we surround ourselves with. When students are struggling with making good decisions, encourage them to seek out school clubs and activities that have solid students as members.

Just by being around those students, they’ll find themselves with better attitudes and feelings of belonging in school. And, of course, that applies to you, too. Who do you surround yourself with?

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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