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121 MARCH 2009
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“It’s so great to have an adult friend”: A teacher-student mentorship program for at-risk youth

Julia Ellis, Jan Small-McGinley and Lucy De Fabrizio

Teacher-student mentoring programs can provide the support and direction that marginalized students need, particularly during the difficult transition into a new school. Here three Canadian high school students and their mentors describe their experiences in a successful mentoring program.

"It’s so great to have an adult friend and to meet someone who really cares – someone who is a good listener, someone I can take my problems to but who allows me to make the final decision. And my mentor is fun! we’re friends!” – student in the mentorship program

It was a sunny May morning in 1998 when we arrived at Bev Facey Composite High School to enjoy a pizza lunch with three students, their mentors, and Nina Hoffman, the school counselor who coordinated the mentoring program. The students and mentors had agreed to have lunch with us and participate in a videotaped interview.

Some 1,200 students attend this school in Sherwood Park, a city of 45,000 on the outskirts of Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Nina had started the mentorship program 6 years earlier as one of the school’s stay-in-school initiatives. The program matches incoming at-risk students with professional and classified school staff members who agree to meet with the students each week during the grade 10 year. Nina hoped the program would support students who were “falling through the cracks” or who were unable to develop their own informal mentoring contacts.

Six weeks earlier, we had interviewed Nina to begin learning about the program. Before the lunch interview with the students, we interviewed Nina again with questions we had sent in advance. She was well prepared with facts, figures, and documents to share. An impressive research base supports this mentoring program. Longitudinal research studies have indicated that mentoring relationships have contributed to the resiliency of at-risk youth (Werner and Smith, 1989). Economically disadvantaged youth have credited their success to the support of a caring adult in their lives (Lefkowitz, 1986). And further research has indicated that economically disadvantaged youth obtain academic, psychosocial, and career benefits from their participation in such programs (Blum and Jones, 1993; Slicker and Palmer, 1993).

All of these benefits have found expression in the Bev Facey program, a tribute to the consistent skill and care of its coordinators. Each spring, program staff identify at-risk students in incoming classes by consulting with counselors at feeder schools (see below: Program coordination activities). Students who have a history of absenteeism or isolation, or who are otherwise deemed at risk, are invited to participate. Those who express interest are given a one-page questionnaire in the fall to assess how negatively they perceive school and themselves. Those who score highly are candidates for the Bev Facey program.

Mentors are chosen with similar care. All faculty and staff at Bev Facey are informed of the program. Interested respondents convene for an informational meeting and drill. To aid in matching, each mentor also informs coordinators of his or her own background interests, which might form the basis for a new bond with a student. Staff participants must commit to meet with their charges for at least 15 minutes each week; for the students, this agreement is formalized in a written contract.

The program coordinators provide print materials to guide new mentors. These materials advise mentors, for instance, to maintain a light tone in the first weeks, and to inquire about academics only after the relationship has strengthened. Throughout, they are supplied with support materials, such as goal-setting worksheets and study guides. With the students” permission, mentors can also receive a copy of each of the students” report cards.

The participants in our May luncheon interview included Bob and his mentor, an English teacher we’ll call Ms. A. Sharon was paired with Ms. B, a classified staff member who works in the school library. And Marg’s mentor was Ms. C, a science teacher in the school. We used the following questions as simple prompts to invite the participants to tell us about the program:

1. When did you tend to meet each week for your 15-minute session?

2. What did you like about the program?

3. Could you share a special memory from your mentorship sessions?

4. What would you say to other high schools about why they should think about starting this kind of a program?

Each pair took turns offering answers to each question. All gave lengthy responses, using the questions as points of departure to describe the mentoring relationship.

Bob and Ms. A
Bob and Ms. A shared a love of reading and a zany sense of humor. Bob clearly enjoyed surprising Ms. A with the “obscure” pieces he found to read. Both said they spent most of their time together laughing and giggling. Ms. A said she enjoyed Bob’s “wacky sense of humor, unique views on life, and his observations.” Bob clearly enjoyed hearing her describe his views as “unique” and repeated the phrase with a chortle.

They met on Mondays at lunch hours and usually lost track of the time when they were together. Ms. A said that if Bob didn’t show up, she went looking for him later in the week. Bob took great pleasure in emphasizing that Ms. A “would al-l-l-l-ways come looking” for him if he missed a Monday. In fact, Bob generally appreciated the way Ms. A would “nag” him about things he needed to do.

Bob came from a rural area, and was not well acquainted with Sherwood Park. He said that through Ms. A’s help it was “really good to know community resources and figure out what happens in the school as well.”

Ms. A outlined their developing relationship, as they moved from discussing what they read to discussing other aspects of school and life:

You start with a common topic or commonality and then the report cards would come. We [mentors] get a special copy, and we’d get a chance to discuss those things. If something was happening in another class, we’d talk on a different level about “What’s your problem? How are you feeling? Would you like me to talk to the teacher? Are you fine by yourself?” And afterward I would never have to talk to the other teacher; we’d simply speak through the problem together. So it went beyond literature to pretty well all aspects of his life.

Bob said that by knowing Ms. A and the other mentors in the program, he learned that teachers are al so human beings, not just authority figures, and he began to find all teachers a little more approachable. Even so, because he “could be shy and intimidated by some teachers,” he said “it was good to know that [he] had that liaison available.”

Bob liked being able to talk to Ms. A about problems or decisions. He said that “it feels safer discussing your problems with a teacher because they’re not as emotionally involved as your parents.”

After the mentoring relationship was well established, Bob became a student in Ms. A’s English class. In spite of her apprehensions about this, Ms. A said it worked well because she already knew his reading interests, and their kibitzing just became part of the classroom climate. Bob said, “If you know the teacher, you tend to learn better from her.”

Asked for his special memory of the mentoring relationship, he said, “She always made me laugh.”

Sharon and Ms. B
Ms. B worked in the library, so Sharon was able to visit her at any time. In the second semester of the mentorship, Ms. B made arrangements for Sharon to complete a work experience for course credit in the library. The other two women working in the library also became Sharon's “mothers.”
Sharon said that she and Ms. B “hit it off pretty great, too, right from the start. We’d sit there and talk about both our families and everything.” Ms. B said that she cared a lot for Sharon and that knowing her helped her to realize that many students have personal problems. Ms. B described her advocacy role for Sharon:

I was able, with Sharon's permission, to approach other teachers and say, “You know, can we work through this? Is there some way we can meet Sharon's academic needs but take a few things into consideration?” And I think teachers who weren’t in the program appreciated that as well, because there’s always things you don’t know about.

There were also several occasions when Ms. B sought out Nina Hoffman and her resources to address a crisis or to avert one.

In goal-setting discussions, Ms. B and Sharon focused not just on schoolwork but also on personal issues, such as romantic relationships. Ms. B thought it helpful that she could share stories of troubles in the lives of some of her relatives.

Sharon concurred, saying that it helped “to get a different perspective.” Through the group social events for all mentors and students, Sharon met others in the program. She said that a number of them became “more people to talk to and to get ideas from.”

When asked about a special memory, Sharon said that she would “always remember every time we were together,” that it was “great,” and that it was “like having a lifetime friend.”

Marg and Ms. C
Marg was fairly quiet during the interview, but she smiled frequently in response to many of Ms. C’s comments and stories. Ms. C. spoke with delight about all the things she learned about the activities and responsibilities in Marg’s life. Marg described the beginning of their relationship:

Well, I don’t know, I just liked her personality, and we just hit it right off. And one thing, she said she had a sister that was a lot like me, so I just found it easier to get to know her.

During the first semester, Marg was in Ms. C’s science class, and they chatted before and after class. Then, as Ms. C put it, they “just started enjoying having lunches together.”

They celebrated many firsts in Marg’s life “her first job, her first car, and “getting asked out.” Ms. C said she enjoyed seeing Marg grow from a shy 10th-grade student who wouldn’t take her nose out of a book to a confident 11th-grade student.

Ms. C explained how their personal relationship made it easy for her to move into a coaching or advocacy role:

It’s safe ground because if you have a student in your class, and you want to know how they’re doing in other classes, it’s hard to approach them. This way, we always have this little communication going, so when it’s time for report cards, I didn’t feel like I was being nosy. I’d been given the opportunity to sit down and say, “Hey, Marg, this is real cool, “or “Science is pretty scary stuff. “And it gave you that chance to go one step further without feeling like you were butting in, because we’d already discussed far more personal things than report cards.

The nature of their relationship actually made it easier to discuss personal issues. Ms. C said:

Sometimes it’s hard to talk to your mom because it’s judgmental. Sometimes it’s safer to talk to the teacher because you know we’re not going to be horrified.

When Ms. C prompted Marg to share her special memory, Marg replied, “That you actually listened to me talk about horses, “cause I couldn’t find nobody else who would.” They had both read The Horse Whisperer and were planning to see and discuss the movie.

Mentors” reflections and observations
As shown by the statements above, mentors were well aware that once they had established friendly, personal relationships with students, they could safely and comfortably offer coaching or advocacy support with school and life problems. This appeared to be the key, powerful dynamic of the mentoring relationships. The mentors saw real benefits resulting from their support. One noted that sometimes second or third chances can make all the difference for a student.

The mentors also observed that membership in the program led all teachers to appreciate these students as “real people,” because all staff were informed about student-mentor pairs and were invited to consult with mentors about any unresolved issues related to these students. Students in this program would definitely not “fall between the cracks” unnoticed.

While students said they found teachers “less intimidating” because of the program, mentors observed that this in fact resulted in more respect, rather than less. Consequently, it was not a problem to have the student one mentored in one’s own class.

Each mentor found it satisfying to have a special bond with a student. Ms. C said she enjoyed watching Marg’s growth, as if Marg were her own child. Ms. B said that the mentoring experience helped her respond to all students in a more understanding way. Ms. A said that rather than being a burden, it was a pleasure to get to know at least one student personally.

Other indicators of program benefits
Nina Hoffman analyzed the previous year’s attendance records for the 17 10th-grade students who were then in the program. In the first semester, the average number of class periods missed by these students was 27, whereas in the second semester it was 14. A final examination was waived for six students because of perfect attendance. Seven students were recipients on Awards Night.

Nina also examined the records of the first cohort of 19 10th-grade students in this program 6 years earlier. She noted that during 10th grade, the students” marks improved from first semester to second semester, showing an increase of 2% in the group’s average.

Nina also identified the current status of the members of this first cohort.

Nina also noted that once the 10th-grade mentorship program was completed, the students and their mentors tended to maintain informal friendly contact for the rest of each student’s time at the school, and even afterward.

Looking ahead
These encouraging signs have led Bev Facey to broaden the program. During 1998-99, there have been 40 studentmentor pairs, and the program is no longer restricted to l 10th-grade students. Further, the frequency of “wholegroup” social/recreational activities has increased from three times per year to once per month. The many communication pieces needed (memos, letters, contracts, handouts, evaluation forms) were also standardized (Ellis & SmallMcGinley, 1999), and experience will undoubtedly bring further refinements.

Many young people coming to high school carry the weight of chaotic, confusing lives and a history of failed relationships with schools. Such students can be at risk of further alienation in large, complex, fast-paced, and seemingly bureaucratic secondary schools. A mentorship program such as the one we studied can offer at-risk students the opportunity for human connection, caring, and material support in such schools.

Program coordination activities

Student selection


Consult with counselors and staff from feeder schools to learn which students might need additional support in making a smooth transition to the secondary school environment.
In particular, check with professional staff whowork with learning assistance or integrated occupational programs.

Interview these students to tell them about the purpose of the program and the commitments involved.
Have students who wish to participate in the program complete information forms to identify their interests and to clarify what they would appreciate in a mentorship program. The students also sign a contract regarding the commitment they are making to the program.
Send letters to parents/guardians to request their support for the students” participation.

Staff selection and matching
Spring and Fall

Conduct an awareness campaign using posters and pictures from previous cohorts to invite school staff to participate in this program.
Provide staff with specific information about the responsibilities and expectations associated with the program as well as evaluation results from prior years.
Have interested staff complete an information sheet indicating their interests, hobbies, and preferences regarding the characteristics of a student to mentor (e.g., gender, in or not in one’s own classes).
Match students with mentors, and provide mentors with the students” information sheets and class schedules.

Communication with school staff

Provide all school staff with a list of the mentors and the students they are matched with.
Encourage school staff to communicate with the mentors about any important topics pertaining to the students (e.g., an upcoming exam, any unresolved problems.)

Supporting mentor pairs

Provide mentors with the students” report card information at reporting periods (with student permission), study and organizational information for students, goal-setting worksheets, magazines related to issues of youth and staying in school.
Organize three whole-group social gatherings for mentors and students. During the first one, called “Mentor Mingle,” mentors and students will meet each other for the first time. This is a pizza party, and games and icebreakers are used to help all present get to know everyone else and their own mentorship partners. After this session, mentors and students begin having their weekly meetings. Also hold celebrations in the form of a luncheon in December and a barbecue at year’s end.
Use a number of opportunities throughout the year to acknowledge each person's participation. Send notes, thank-you cards, and gift or goodie bags at occasions such as Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.
Work proactively to maintain the program, and troubleshoot and respond to problems that are beyond the scope of the mentor’s work.

Authors' Note
Pseudonyms have been used for students and mentors. We wish to express our thanks to participating students, mentors, and Nina Hoffman of Bev Facey Composite High School, Elk Island Public Schools.


Video programs

Volunteer mentorship programs. (1999). Edmonton, AB: Alberta Teachers” Association. (Web site for ATA’s Safe and Caring Schools Project: projects/safe.html.)

Listen Up! Kids talk about good teaching. (1997). Calgary, AB: Mighty Motion Pictures. Telephone 800-471-5628, fax 403-439-4051.

Books and monographs

Ellis, J. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching from understanding: Teacher as interpretive inquirer. New York: Garland.

Ellis, J. and Small-McGinley, J. (1999). Volunteer mentorship programs: A practical handbook. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Teachers” Association.

Ellis, J. and Small-McGinley, J. (1998). Peer support and student leadership programs. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Teachers” Association.

Ellis, J. and Small-McGinley, J. (1998). Volunteer mentorship programs K-12. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Teachers” Association.

Ellis, J., Small-McGinley, J. and De Fabrizio, L. (in press). Caring for kids in communities: Using mentorship, peer support and student leadership programs. New York: Peter Lang.

Lefkowitz, B. (1986). Tough change: Growing up on your own in America. New York: Free Press.

Werner, E. and Smith, R. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: Adams, Bannister and Cox.

Journal articles

Blum, D. J. and Jones, L. A. (1993). Academic growth group and mentoring program for potential dropouts. The School Counselor, 40, 3. pp. 207-217.

Ellis, J. (1997). What a seriously at-risk 12-year-old would really like to say to teachers about classroom management. Education Canada, 37, 2. pp. 17-21.

Ellis, J., Hart, S. and Small-McGinley, J. (1998). Classroom management: The views of “difficult” students. The Canadian Association of Principals” Journal, 8, 1. pp. 39-41.

Ellis, J., Hart, S. and Small-McGinley, J. (1998). “Difficult” students” perspectives on belonging and inclusion in the classroom. Reclaiming Children and Youth: Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems 7, 3. pp. 142-146.

Ellis, J. and Small-McGinley, J. (1999). Students” perspectives on student leadership programs. The Canadian Association of Principals” Journal, 8, 2. pp. 35-37.

Ellis, J., Small-McGinley, J. and Hart, S. (1998.) Mentor-supported literacy programs in elementary schools. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 44, 2. pp. 149-162.

Slicker, E. K. and Palmer, D. J. (1993). Mentoring at-risk high school students: Evaluation of a school-based program. The School Counselor, 40, 5. pp. 327-334.

This feature: Ellis, J.; Small-McGinley, J. and De Fabrizio, L. (1999). “It’s so great to have an adult friend”: A teacher-student mentorship program for at-risk youth. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3, 4. pp. 46-50.

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