Find your way as a mentor

Take the right path and avoid the pitfalls of offering guidance

Being a mentor to a student is a tough job. Whether you are an academic mentor (helping to organise a student who can't get homework in on time) or a pastoral guide (acting as a sounding board when their home life is hard to cope with), it is a stressful and demanding role.

You will be able to help with most of the difficulties your mentee faces at school: social struggles, problems with organisation and trouble with homework can all be addressed, for example. And once a child feels that they are beginning to get on top of things, the transformation can be surprisingly rapid.

Other problems, however, will present a real challenge. Some of the issues faced by students are so complex that they require help from external organisations, such as your local child and adolescent mental health services.

Despite the extra demands on you, supporting a young person through tough times is an important job and any effort to help will be appreciated - even if you don't get a thank you out loud. Here are some top tips:

l Confidentiality and trust are vital factors. Mentors must keep a dated, written record of all discussions as a safeguarding measure, but eye contact is preferable to scribbling in a notepad during mentoring sessions. So try jotting down a summary of the meeting immediately afterwards and be careful to store the notes somewhere private and secure.

l It is important to keep some distance and avoid being available all the time. You may need to make allowances for extra support in emergencies, but mentors must avoid falling into the trap of becoming a best friend.

l If you are organising a mentoring programme, think carefully about how mentors and mentees are matched. Adolescents may find speaking to someone of the same gender more comfortable, but it depends on the individual.

l Mentoring a student whom you also teach needs careful consideration - it is important that you don't treat them any differently in the classroom. The familiarity of a teacher they already know can be comforting for the student, but any conflict in the classroom can have a damaging effect on the mentoring relationship.

l Pastoral mentoring is usually less structured than academic mentoring, which lends itself to clearer targets and a fixed time frame. Let your mentee guide the discussion towards what is most helpful for them and avoid talking at length, especially about yourself. A pastoral mentor must be flexible enough to take the unexpected in their stride, while also maintaining clear boundaries.

Above all, it is vital to seek support from senior staff, colleagues and external agencies if a situation becomes too much for you to handle alone.

Even talking issues over with a senior leader - leaving out names and specifics - can guide you in the right direction, allowing you to get the help you need to support the student in the most effective way.

Alix Robertson is a teacher and journalist

top 10 pastoral resources

1 All-round assistance

This assembly idea uses balls as a prop to show how school can help students to feel secure.


2 Growing confidence

Children express their feelings by pinning photographs to the branches of an "emotion" tree.


3 Support structure

This Teachers TV video extols the virtues of good support networks in schools.


4 Anger games

Help students to manage their anger with this detailed PowerPoint featuring activities such as the anger thermometer.


5 Best behaviour

Reward good behaviour with these gold, silver and bronze certificates, plus one for outstanding effort.


6 Pastoral plan

This template will help leaders to develop a thorough plan for pastoral support, covering staff, parents and pupils.


7 Motivate mentors

Structure your pastoral mentor meetings and keep a record of students' progress with these simple forms.


8 On the home front

Accentuate the positive using templates for notes to send home that focus on children's progress and good work.


9 Star turns

Use this poster to showcase a student "star of the week" and build a culture of praise in your classroom.


10 Beat bullying

This student-friendly booklet is a great guide when putting together an anti-bullying policy.


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