Five qualities that will make you a great mentor
City Year AmeriCorps members wear many hats—they’re relationship builders who work to support their students, classrooms and the entire school community. They also help students reach their academic goals by providing one-on-one tutoring or small-group instruction. Perhaps one of the most important roles corps members play is that of a trusted, caring and consistent mentor.
AmeriCorps members across 29 U.S. cities show up for students every day as near-peer mentors—wise enough to offer counsel yet young enough to relate to student perspectives. Serving as student success coaches, corps members welcome students into the school building every morning, run afterschool enrichment programs, and lend an empathetic ear to students looking for support.
Studies show that benefit significantly from the guidance and support of mentors and other caring adults. Young people who have mentors skip school less, are more likely to volunteer and more apt to take on leadership roles, for example. And for National Mentoring Month, we’re celebrating how City Year AmeriCorps members act as mentors and cheerleaders for their students.
Interested in serving with City and becoming a mentor to a vibrant student community? Here are five qualities you’ll need to have to be a great mentor:
Empathy fosters trust in mentoring relationships
Empathy is one of City Year’s core values; it also happens to be one of the qualities that make an excellent mentor. The ability to express care, relate to what others are going through and sympathize—not with pity but with deep understanding—make empathy one of the hallmarks of friendship and mentorship. AmeriCorps members and students bring their unique life experiences to the classroom daily—these experiences shape and inform the relationships built throughout the service year.
Perhaps you know what it’s like to struggle with math. Maybe you were the kid who had trouble making friends in school. Or you might know what it’s like to have a native language other than English. These are all situations that our students experience as well. Your ability to connect and empathize with their lived experiences helps build trust. And we know that mutual trust and understanding are the bedrock of positive mentor-mentee relationships.
“Half the learning is understanding that we often won’t have answers to the challenges our students face—and that’s ok,” said Karinne Caisse (CY Sacramento ’18). “Being there for them, connecting them to resources, when possible, is often all we can do. For people from all backgrounds, it’s important to understand that our response won’t make someone’s experiences better—but our ability to connect and build relationships will.”
Patience is a hallmark of mentoring
While trust helps foster the connection between mentor and mentee, we know this kind of relationship building takes time, consistency and, above all, patience. A strong relationship is built over countless big and small, joyful and challenging moments. One day you might find that your student is chatty and willing to share what’s going on in their lives. The next day, that same student might withdraw and be uninterested in connecting with you or the other caring adults.
When this happens, it may feel like a setback, but this is normal! Be sure to give the student the space they need while letting them know that you’ll still be there for them when they’re ready to open up again.
“Our students are capable of achieving great things. Sometimes all they need is patience and one on one support to help them reach the potential they already have,” –Imani Jackson (CY Chicago, ’20)
Understand mentoring is mutually beneficial
Mentoring is a joint, two-person effort and should be a mutually beneficial relationship. As a mentor, your role is to support your student, helping them to achieve their personal and academic goals and grow in confidence, resilience and their own sense of agency to shape their life.
Take time to learn what your student wants to get from their relationship with you: Do they want to improve their reading skills? Do they want to try out for the school play this year? Do they need support building new friendships? After learning their goals, work together and discuss how you can help them achieve them and make sure everyone is comfortable with the plan.
Also, remember that mentorship is not a top-down relationship. There will be countless points throughout the year where you’ll be the one learning from your students. Being open to learning from them signals that you value their opinion, insights and life experience. It helps build that oh-so-important trust and boosts confidence in the mentee.
Open and honest conversations strengthen mentoring relationships
A positive mentor-mentee relationship doesn’t mean avoiding tough conversations and giving honest and constructive feedback. Say your student is having a bad day and says something hurtful to one of their peers. It would be important to address this with your student and have an honest conversation about what happened.
While you may be disappointed or frustrated with them at times like these, the way you broach the conversation is critical. You can let them know that they “fell short” of your expectations while providing a safe space for the student to share what they may have felt in that moment and how they want to show up differently in the future.
The good news is that these conversations will be much easier if you’ve worked to build trust!
“I remind myself that my students might be feeling the same emotions and struggles, and I know that makes the work we do so much more important now,” says Sumana Shashidar (CY New Hampshire ’20). “This is when things can get really challenging for everyone—both academically and emotionally—and so the support I’m able to provide them really makes a difference.”
Motivate and celebrate your mentees throughout the year
The academic school year is filled with ups and downs for teachers, students and student success coaches. As a mentor, you’ll have to recognize when your student could benefit from some external motivation. For example, your students might be restless and a little less focused right before the winter break (and you might be too)!
To help students stay focused and on track, you can find fun and creative ways to motivate them. Set up a reward system: Did your student score a few points higher on their latest math test? Did your typically quiet student raise their hand to speak in class? Then during your lunch group, allow them to pick the topic of conversation or invite a friend. Pull them aside and let them know how proud you are of them and let them choose a game they’d like to play during afterschool programming.
Whatever the win is—big or small—remember to tell the other caring adults in their life about their progress. Good news is worth sharing!
So if you possess some empathy, know how to be a bit patient, understand mentoring is a two-way street and you’re not there to “rescue” your mentee, are able to push yourself to have difficult but necessary conversations, and are willing to celebrate the little moments to help motivate the student you are serving—you will likely make not only a fantastic mentor, but a great student success coach as well.
Are you looking to support students and serve as a mentor in a vibrant school community? Apply now!
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