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The Hidden Impact of Informal Student Mentoring (Opinion)

How can schools make mentoring more feasible for teachers?

When I was in high school, my U.S. history teacher kept a box of Quaker Oats on a windowsill in his classroom. After class one day, I asked him, “What’s the deal with the oats?”

That was the first of many long conversations I would have with Mr. Hinshaw, who was raised in a Quaker community and became my mentor. He was funny, disarming, and patient. Our talks helped me stay centered during times of personal and family challenges. He pushed me to be a deeper thinker and a better friend.

My serendipitous experience of finding a mentor at school is a common one. In a new study, Noelle Hurd, Alex Bolves, and I found that 1 out of every 6 students names a teacher, counselor, or coach as their most impactful mentor in life outside of their immediate family.

We show that students who experience informal mentoring relationships go on to achieve considerably greater academic success. Having a school-based natural mentor raised students’ GPAs and made them much more likely to attend college. These differences were not simply a pattern of higher-achieving students being more likely to have a mentor but rather the direct effects of mentors (our research included comparisons of similar students such as twins).

But we also found a concerning pattern. Though students from low socioeconomic backgrounds benefited most from the guidance and advice of school-based mentors, they also were the least likely to report having one. In fact, some schools have twice as many students reporting these natural mentoring relationships than other schools do.

So, what can schools do to make mentoring more feasible for teachers and equitable for students?

Our research points to four areas:

Recognize and reward the effort teachers invest in informal mentoring. This can range from informal, private notes of appreciation to more formal, publicly announced awards for teachers who go above and beyond.

Create more opportunities for small-group interactions between educators and students. Schools can aim for smaller class sizes for selected subjects or design advisory periods where students stay with the same teacher across several years. Outside the classroom, schools can empower students to form clubs around their areas of interest and provide stipends to faculty members who serve as club mentors and sponsors.

Foster a school environment where all students feel a sense of belonging. Teachers, administrators, and staff can participate in a collective and concerted effort to reflect on the experiences of all their students in school. One first step might be to engage in a relationship-mapping exercise to better understand which students do and don’t have a connection with a school-based adult.

Recruit and retain a more socioeconomically and racially diverse teacher workforce. Some districts are working to develop a more diverse supply of teachers from their own communities via Grow Your Own educator pipeline programs. Schools can also analyze feedback from staff working-condition surveys to ensure teachers of all backgrounds feel supported and valued. When students see teachers that look like themselves, they may be more open to developing a deeper connection based on shared identities and common backgrounds.

Our data simply reflect what has been long known in the education community. If you work at a school, you are more than an educator—you are also an informal counselor, social worker, and life coach to many students. People often think of mentorship as something that happens as part of formal programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. But informal, naturally occurring mentoring is just as important, especially when it is with educators who can support students to thrive in school and beyond.

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