Recently I was talking with some mentors and program coordinators in Rochester, NY. We talked about school-based mentors who volunteer to enter the schools to work with youth. That lead to a discussion of natural mentors–remember them? that’s the way we mentored youth for the last 2000 years (but I digress). And, of course, teachers as natural mentors came to the top of the list of influential adults who could leverage change in children’s lives by “prizing” them (as Carl Rogers would say) or being “crazy about them” (as Urie Bronfenbrenner once said). One program staff member was critical, saying some teachers walk through hallways with their heads staring down at the ground, as if there were no kids there at all. “Where’s the respect?” she asked. “Teachers have to respect the kids if they want to show students they are prized and valued.” My reply, “You can’t given what you ain’t got.”
Schools are a terribly difficult place for kids right now, and by some measure, they are just as bad for the adults who work in them. Whatever your political persuasion, it is hard to argue that No Child Left Behind has achieved its goals. Clearly schools are for many kids the most disconnecting contexts they enter every day. Time to talk with teachers, ask questions, be heard, and be prized happens less and less, I hear. Not only because there is more time spent in test preparation, but also because those teachers most likely to make a student feel prized by asking questions, listening, caring, are finding themselves so frustrated that they are leaving in droves. Following them are the kids on the cusp–the kids whose only (or main) hope might be to experience some connection to the larger world of productive citizenship in schools. Yearning for meaning, purpose, connection–and finding so little of it in our public schools–kids and teachers are evacuating the premises.
What hope is there? Well, let’s set aside the larger issue of parents and both local and national officials needing to stand up for kids and get “caring” back on the agenda in schools. Let’s focus on what program staff can do.
Renee Spencer and I conducted a set of analyses to better understand why we were not seeing the kind of impact of school-based mentoring for girls that we expected. When we asked program staff in focus groups, they gave us many ideas. But one answer was, “We can’t do this alone.” We need to have help and assistance from school staff to do our jobs–to get mentors to their kids in the classes–when we are busy and unavailable to help the mentors as they enter the schools. Indeed, when we took our focus group findings and subjected them to survey data analysis, and looked at variation in how often program staff communicated with the school staff in the front office, we found that only in schools where mentoring staff communicated weekly with front office staff (as opposed to monthly) did girls show consistent benefits from their mentoring relationships. Seems to me, if mentoring program staff don’t show respect and appreciation to the school staff who interface with their mentors, those staff don’t give the same respect to the mentors. (That, of course, is a hypothesis to be tested.) Seems as if staff who feel valued, appreciated, and part of a team are more likely to lend a hand to a mentor, who is trying, in turn, to lend a hand to a mentee.
So, maybe teachers can’t give respect to our kids readily when our government demands from them accountability in ways that undermines teachers’ ability to care, listen, connect. Similarly, no mentoring program is an island. It is part of a larger system or ecology (as Bronfenbrenner called these interacting environments). We need schools to help us help mentors help kids.
We’ve got to give to others what we ourselves can’t always give to our mentors directly. It’s a team effort. It takes a village.