All the tech in the world: School closures and the loss of natural mentoring


“Ultimately you can have all the tech in the world, but really great learning is a human endeavor. It’s about the teacher and student relationship.”

Todd Rose, Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Populace


By Jean Rhodes

In addition to lost learning opportunities during COVID-19, many students are also losing vital connections with school-based mentors whose influence on students success can be felt for decades. Unfortunately Zoom and other forms of distance learning are simply no replacement for the little conversations and connections with teachers and other caring adults that help to shape lives and identities. “Students spend more than 1,000 hours with their teacher in a typical school year. ” according to Education Week editor Sarah Sparks, “That’s enough time to build a relationship that could ignite a student’s lifetime love of learning…”  Indeed,  a growing body of literature has highlighted the vital role of teachers and other school staff as mentors, particularly to marginalized students. A close relationship with a teacher can boost students’ academic motivation, interest, and performance, as well as their overall attachment to school, over and above parent and family support. In fact, some experts have concluded that at least one strong relationship with a teacher is the single most important ingredient” for vulnerable adolescents’ academic development and success. Others have highlighted the lifelong educational and economic benefits of being assigned to even one good teacher. High school and college students who list a teacher or guidance counselor as their mentor have better academic and job outcomes than youth with mentors from outside of school (e.g., extended family, religious leaders, neighbors, etc.). Such adults enable students to connect to new opportunities and networks, and to more fully engage in school.

Analyses of the Add Health study have indicated that teachers are the single most commonly nominated type of mentors (10%), a rate that is more than double maternal grandmothers (4.8%), uncles (4.6%), minister/priest/rabbi/religious leaders (4.1%), and employers (4.2%). Even after controlling for academic achievement, having a teacher-mentor was associated with a greater likelihood of high school graduation, enrollment in post-high school education and vocational training, and completion of a four-year college degree. 

Likewise, Covid-19 is depriving youth of the informal mentoring support that they often receive in after-school programs, summer camps, competitive sports teams, youth arts, and other programs. Because the adults staffing such programs are often relatively young themselves, oftentimes from the same communities that they serve, and thus more familiar with the underlying culture, they are well positioned to connect with adolescents and offer them credible role modeling, advice, and guidance. Moreover, they have fewer curricular demands than teachers and more opportunities to engage in informal conversations and enjoyable activities with students that foster close bonds. Psychologist Bart Hirsch and colleagues analyzed low-income youths’ relationships with staff in several Boys & Girls Clubs across Chicago. Club staff were found to offer a distinct form of support, falling somewhere between the caring and love received from extended family and the specific targeted skills received from teachers. Most youth attended the clubs every day and three-quarters of the adolescents considered it a second home.  Other studies have explored the vital role that athletic programs and coaches can play, including exposure to coaches who not only help advance athletic skills, but also promote self-confidence and self-discipline. Drawing on the Add Health data, my colleagues and I found that students who nominated an athletic coach as their mentor were more likely to complete high school and college, even after accounting for the influence of participation in sports and academic functioning.

More recently, my senior doctoral student, Matt Hagler, and I found that having a school or other institutionally-connected mentor was associated with higher educational attainment and higher household incomes twenty years later, while family and neighborhood mentors conferred none of these benefits. Moreover, drawing on a large national sample of high school graduates, researchers recently showed that having a natural mentor promoted college attendance among poor and working-class youth more than for middle and upper-class youth. Likewise, analyses of the Add Health data set, researchers have found that positive associations between school-based natural mentors and later educational attainment were strongest among youth from more marginalized socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. 

In addition to parents, formal mentors have a vital role to play in helping young people navigate this loss of natural mentoring support.