Some 20 years ago, I was studying educational administration at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
The need to listen to our students jumped out at me from advice in a chapter in Michael Fullan’s seminal work The New Meaning of Educational Change.
I highly recommend this work and the practices it encourages.
The value of teacher mentors for students
It is from this that I developed a belief that, as students become adolescents, a well-structured mentoring system in school really pays dividends to all involved.
It goes to the heart of what all educators are trying to achieve, for, through our noble profession, we all are helping to shape well-rounded, confident young lives.
As such, when I came to found a British international school in Mexico City in 2016, I – and now my team – worked from the beginning to ensure that a mentoring programme and the benefits it offers would be a key part of school life.
But mentoring, like education, is not something that is merely "done to" students. To be effective, the research still tells us that a thoughtful, professional relationship between the teacher and student – a genuine back and forth process – is what really counts.
Therefore, our ability to listen carefully to the student, and adapt our practices accordingly, remains paramount.
A patient process
As such, our listening process centres upon our teacher-student mentoring programme. In these times, owing to this pandemic, it is even more apparent that educators across the globe are aware of the need to promote student wellbeing in its many guises.
Apart from obvious personal, healthy benefits of anyone ridding herself or himself of stresses and strains, students who are comfortable in their own skins are far better learners.
Our mentors confirm that thoughtful and quite regular mentoring foments self-confidence and a proper sense of ownership in the students’ learning.
Still, as one of my colleagues confirms, the initial bonding is “one of the main challenges for the mentor”.
Subsequently, a whole host of topics can be and are discussed, albeit generally dominated by “social rubs in the students’ lives and or perceived academic pressures”. The water churns; life-giving oxygen is added.
A list of experienced teachers is made available and the student makes a choice – one mentor can help to counsel a handful of individual students.
Contact times are arranged within their schedules, or just after school has "closed" – in person in normal times, digital meeting rooms during the pandemic.
Both parties agree to an initial, yet flexible, time frame. Thirty minutes has proved popular, while meetings tend to be held from once a week to once every three.
Generally, the conversation will begin to flow quite freely. School life provokes myriad issues and topics.
Still, experienced mentors well know how to open with informal warm-up questions, to jump-start things should they ever encounter a resounding silence.
Removing the thorn
If there were a simple trick, it then requires the mentor to be a listener, allowing the student to take centre stage.
Thus, and soon, the student finds that they are able to, as we say over here, “sacar la espina” (to extract the thorn; to get things off one’s chest).
All being well, an appropriate relationship based on trust soon emerges. It should be enjoyable, promoting what one of our mentors describes as “a delicate balance of what is important to the students, infused by possible concerns the school might have”.
Another mentor reflected how she often “combats frustrations with cases of gratitude”. There is no silver bullet in mentoring; each encounter, and the time needed, will be unique.
Benefits of time to talk
Yet, all students who last in the programme will have a much clearer idea of who they really are and, critically, who they wish to be.
The dividends are many: students become extremely adept at self-reflection (“reading themselves”); they understand how to engender and value trust; an increased and a more profound communication with their other teachers occurs; there is a better work output; and students are capable of a work output of a higher quality.
To tell the truth, as the mentor inevitably uncovers other and welcome facets of the student, that reality becomes agreeable and helpful for the teacher, too. Happily, over time, the school culture matures.
The idea certainly is not to pore over cases of hidden, dark angst, although, according to the student’s personal experiences and challenges, angst might seep in.
And because of respecting the student and child protection regulations, an assistant, typically seated quietly at the back, always attends.
Overall, the to and fro of good, worthwhile conversations within the programme is a delicate balancing act – but one with deeply enriching outcomes.
As such, should a mentoring programme be a new practice in your school or something you have considered, be assured of its worth – it can generate lasting outcomes.
Tom MJ Wingate is the headteacher of The Wingate School, Mexico City