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So You Want to Be a Mentor

Help more than you harm.
(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

There was plenty I was ready to leave behind when I left my job as an elementary school teacher last June: the 70-hour work week, the low pay, the heartbreaking impact of rural poverty on the happiness and well-being of my students ... the list goes on. But after being away from my students for six months, I found the list of things I missed was mounting too. Experiments in the science laboratory, serious talks on the swing sets, and high-fives over hard-earned grades were all things I loved about my job. But above all, I missed the sense of meaningful connection with students. I loved being close to young people, and all the joy, frustration, and learning that includes. So I cast around for a way to re-gain that sense of connection, and happened upon a good fit: mentoring.

I’m not the only one who’s done so. In the past 20 years, mentoring has increasingly gained popularity as a way for community members to give back to children and youth. Mentoring programs for young people of all ages have proliferated over the past decades, with $90 million in federal funding annually and more than 4.5 million mentoring relationships forged nationwide. Done well, mentoring can improve students’ academic achievement, social-emotional skills, relationships with peers and family members, mental health and self esteem, and physical health. January is National Mentoring Month, and so perhaps you, too, are thinking about making time to make an impact on a child in your community.

I think that’s great. I also think, however, that you’ll want to do some research first. There are many different sorts of mentorships, and a wide field of programs available. Before making a commitment, here are a few major considerations.

First, consider the impact you want to have, and the skills that you bring to the challenge. Are you most passionate about helping students succeed in school? Helping children build social-emotional skills? Teaching your hobby or faith tradition? There are so many American kids who need so many kinds of help. The more specific you can be about your goals and abilities, the more likely you—and your future mentees—are to succeed. Your contribution might take the form of a traditional mentoring relationship, but it could also mean forming a strong bond with a student through after-school tutoring, coaching a team, or leading a youth group within your faith community. My greatest joy as an educator came from the opportunity to develop close, authentic relationships that helped my students (and me) grow socially and emotionally, so I looked for a mentoring program that would help me do the same with a student in my community. Research shows that mentoring relationships are generally most effective when the skills and experiences of the mentor match the aim of the program, so leverage what you’re best at and find a platform to share it.

Second, consider what you’re able to commit. A large body of research indicates that the positive benefits of mentoring are only evident when relationships are regular and sustained. Just as with any other relationship, a strong bond between a mentor and mentee isn’t built overnight, but over time, and through regular, positive interaction. It appears that the best, most powerful mentorships need to last at least a year. This gives mentors and mentees sufficient opportunities to build a relationship over a significant period of time. I’m fortunate enough to work for an organization that values work-life balance, and know I will have the time to commit to an impactful mentoring relationship. If you don’t feel as confident that you can commit to a sustained and consistent relationship, consider other opportunities you might have to make a difference for kids. And if you do make a commitment to mentor, stick to it—inconsistent and infrequent mentoring is not = helpful, and sometimes actively harmful, to children and youth.

Third, know that all mentoring programs aren’t created equal. Look for programs that:

  • Develop you: Being a good mentor requires training. Look for a program that provides regular, quality learning opportunities to help you improve as a mentor.
  • Support you: Mentoring relationships can be challenging, and you’re likely to encounter situations in which you’ll need support. An effective mentoring organization should be prepared to help you keep going when the proverbial going gets rough. Look for a program that provides not just regular instruction, but also frequent, substantive support, whether in the form of individual check-ins with staff, group meetings, etc.
  • Are insistent about being consistent: Consistency and reliability are preconditions for successful mentoring. Your mentoring program should be aware of this, and communicate its importance during the recruitment process. The frequency and longevity of your mentoring relationship with a student might vary depending on the program model, but the rule of thumb mentioned above—a commitment of at least a year, spending quality time together at least a few times a month—is a good place to start.

This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.