It takes two: New research investigates reciprocity in the teacher-student mentoring relationship

Ferguson, S. (2017). Ask not what your mentor can do for you…: The role of reciprocal exchange in maintaining student-teacher mentorships. Sociological Forum, 1-23. DOI: 10.1111/socf.12406.

Summarized by Justin Preston



In the present study, the author seeks to underscore a framework for relational processes that make social capital, or the goodwill available to a person or groups which can translate into material and non-material benefits, into a dynamic concept. It is not necessarily something that can be set aside in a bank and utilized at a later time. Instead, social capital could be seen more as a garden to be tended and maintained over time, which, if left unattended, could wither away.

Based on the author’s framework, “social capital exists in mentorships when adolescents access an adult who mobilizes resources that provide social support or social leverage.” One of the ways in which relationships that provide social capital can be maintained is through acts of reciprocity. “In reciprocal exchange relationships,” the author writes, “actors receive resources from exchange partners and return them in an ongoing cycle.” In other words, people do positive things for each other over time in reciprocal relationships. These resources may be tangible goods and services, or intangible social benefits like loyalty or status.

The present study sought to distinguish between the relational processes that create social capital from resources that serve as social capital. Further, the author focused on the ways in which relational reciprocity can generate social capital.


The author conducted in-depth interviews with 20 female public high school teachers in large, urban school district. Students in this district were predominantly African American or Latino, and 87% of the students came from economically disadvantaged households.

The teachers interviewed taught core academic subjects, including English, history, science, and math. The teachers also interacted with a broad cross-section of the students in their schools. The author observed classes at one high school as a supplementary mode of data collection.


Every teacher in the sample reported having mentoring relationships, and each served in multiple capacities beyond their instructional duties. These mentoring relationships were distinct from the teachers’ ties to other students; typically, the pair spent more time together, and the teacher believed that there was more trust and companionship in the mentoring relationship.

In describing these relationships, there were key aspects that stood out:

Voluntary behavior commitments – teachers interpreted students’ voluntary desire to spend time with them on tasks as a display of commitment to the relationship. These efforts translated into more robust relationships between the students and the teachers who mentored them.

Expressive acts of service – the author found that mentees who performed small tasks to help teachers prepare for their day, such as cleaning white boards and photocopying, as an act of reciprocity, or a demonstration of their willingness to engage in the relationship and the value which the mentees placed in it.

Reciprocal care and gratitude – Teachers found moments that demonstrated that they had “reached” a student as being one of the most rewarding aspects of their mentoring relationships. Often, these moments occurred when a mentee recognized and expressed gratitude for the teacher’s role in their life.

Shared accomplishments – Teachers often face a difficult task in their work, having to navigate the effects of social and interpersonal challenges, such as poverty, a transient student body, and more. Mentoring relationships, however, gave teachers a chance to experience a success when it may not be more broadly available. In other words, a mentee’s success was often seen as a success for the teacher, as well.

There were also challenges that could derail and damage a mentoring relationship, however:

Imbalanced exchange – Teachers often went to great lengths to support their mentees when they felt that the relationship was one they found satisfying and rewarding, with both parties working toward the student’s academic and personal improvement. When teachers lost faith in that mutual engagement, though, they tended to withdraw from their previous levels of support.

Misused and rejected gifts – In those mentoring relationships that were broken, the breaches that caused the end of the relationship often occurred when the teachers felt that they had offered a “gift”, such as an exception made for a student, that was misused or rejected.

Bottom Line for Mentors and Programs

Importance of incorporating realities of unreciprocated effort into mentor and mentee training. That is, efforts and overtures will not always be recognized or even overtly appreciated. Proper relationship support through the program can help the mentor and mentee navigate through the rocky waters of the hurt feelings that may result from such incidents.

As such, an emphasis on respecting and acknowledging the efforts each party is contributing to the relationship can help validate the connection and its mutual importance. Acknowledgement could be something as simple as a “thank you” or redoubled effort on a task.

A willingness to invest time and effort into a relationship has been shown to be related to the resulting strength of the relationship in a cyclical manner, creating a positive feedback loop where effort and participation in a mentoring relationship creates a stronger mentor-mentee bond, which, in turn, makes the parties involved more willing to further engage. This can help to create both important skills for youth, but also serve to connect them with more and more opportunities to develop social capital, as well as an understanding of the importance in maintaining those connections.

After all, this study highlights an important point: Relationships are changeable things, and the associated benefits that accompany mentoring relationships can change as well. Maintaining positive relationships has the potential to benefit a mentee long after they leave high school.

To access the original article, click here.