Ask Not What Your Mentor Can Do for You. . .: The Role of Reciprocal Exchange in Maintaining Student–Teacher Mentorships

Editor’s note: I stumbled across this impressive study and, more generally, the work of rising star, Sherelle Ferguson. Sherelle is a doctoral student in the sociology dept. at the University of Pennsylvania where she has been studying mentoring, social class, and social networks. This study explores the important role that mentees play in maintaining relationships, and the specific behaviors (e.g., gratitude) that help. This work has important implications for both formal and informal mentoring relationships. 

Ferguson, S. (2017). Ask Not What Your Mentor Can Do for You. . .: The Role of Reciprocal Exchange in Maintaining StudentTeacher Mentorships. Sociological Forum. 

Summary (reprinted from the Abstract)

Mentoring relationships between adolescents and adults are an important source of social capital that facilitates young people’s academic and social development. Studies show that close relationships with teachers especially benefit socioeconomically disadvantaged adolescents, yet little is known about teacher-mentors’ perspectives on mentorship.

This study draws on in-depth interviews with teachers in low-income high schools and ethnographic observations to examine the dynamics that sustain student–teacher mentoring relationships. I engage social exchange frameworks to show that reciprocal exchanges that generated intangible rewards for teachers, such as gratitude and purpose, helped maintain mentorships. I find that teachers’ motivations to invest in students were contingent on the strength of the relationship. Teachers withdrew assistance when they perceived that relationships became nonreciprocal.

The context in which teachers interacted with mentees and the form of support they had given also influenced their evaluations of reciprocity. These findings contribute to a growing body of literature on relationships that challenge strict divisions between the function of strong and weak ties. Further, these findings contribute to social capital literature by showing that once accessed, social capital does not lie latent as network ties maintain the same willingness to help. In actuality, resourceful ties must be maintained.

Implications (reprinted from the Discussion section)

Maintaining a mentor was partly dependent on adolescents’ ability to reciprocate adequately. Teachers were satisfied by intangible rewards such as gratitude, approval, and purpose that they received in return…

Teachers’ negative response to nonreciprocity shows that mentorship is a two-way street. Nonreciprocity was one of the greatest threats to maintaining mentoring relationships as teachers did not tolerate unilateral giving for long. In particular, rejected or misused gifts quickly tuned teachers into imbalance in the relationship…For students who are in their classes, reciprocity included effective classroom participation, loyalty in front of peers, and consistent academic effort. Teachers maintained relationships with students who had below-average academic performance yet demonstrated improvement. But for students in teachers’ classes who unintentionally or deliberately did not demonstrate noncognitive behaviors such as industriousness, attention, or perseverance (Farkas 2003), mentorships were particularly vulnerable…Teachers felt angry and hurt by imbalanced reciprocity. …

Large class sizes, high student– teacher ratios, and teaching loads of 150 students in under-resourced schools all hinder this process. In this study, findings are limited to teachers’ interactions with relatively racially and economically homogeneous student bodies. Given the disparities in youth’s social capital by class and race, further research should investigate the role of reciprocity in stratification. In particular, because more-privileged students’ connections with nonparental adults may be mediated and managed by their parents (Hardie 2015), their influence may contribute to maintaining ties.