Mentorship Sets Sail

Two weeks ago, I was having lunch with my fellow foreign teacher, Carl.  I was commenting on how well our Seniors and Juniors were doing at some rather challenging writing.  I wondered how our Sophomores were ever going to catch up to that level.

“We should have a mentor program,” said Carl.  “I tried to start one two years ago, but it went nowhere.  Maybe with your energy, you can get it done!”

I immediately agreed that a mentor program would be immensely helpful.  Yet, I could totally understand why Carl had given up on getting it started two years ago. Trying to introduce new programs in a Chinese school has sometimes felt like beating my head against a feather down mattress.  They’re very polite about it, but in the end, the answer always seems to be “No.”

When I had proposed starting a chorus, I’d been told, “That’s a wonderful idea! I love it! But we don’t have the time or the facilities.”

Realizing I had probably gone about this the wrong way. I’d decided to propose my ideas in a more official manner, to let them know I’d considered it carefully.

I’d written a 7 page treatise on the merits of extracurricular activities.  I’d enumerated the ways they could help our students.  I’d written step-by-step instructions on how to go about starting and maintaining clubs.  I’d provided a list of clubs I could sponsor, noting the skills students would practice and the time commitment required.  All of this had been warmly received, but, in the end, nothing had happened.  All my effort had been for naught.

So, it was with great trepidation that I set forth establishing a mentor program.  I knew if I was going to make it work, I would need something I’d lacked before: support from my fellow teachers.  Luckily, the first thing I had to do was determine which Seniors and Juniors would make viable mentors, and what subjects Sophomores were struggling with.  To do that, I needed to talk to their teachers.

I visited every teacher in the program, soliciting their suggestions for strong mentors in their subjects, and asking them to identify Sophomores who struggled in their classes.  In the process, I pitched the idea of a mentor program.  Everyone seemed enthusiastic about the concept.  At the end of this process, I had a spreadsheet of 16 Juniors and Seniors enumerating their strong subjects, and another spreadsheet of the 16 Sophomores delineating the areas where they needed help.

My lists compiled, the time had come to broach the idea with the administration.  Principal Hannah and Vice Principal Maggie listened attentively to my presentation.  This was not all that encouraging.  They had listened politely before rejecting my previous ideas.  As I finished, I was certain this was going to be another case of “Great idea, but it’s impossible.”  Yet Maggie’s smile lacked the reserve I’d seen before, and principal Hannah was positively beaming at me.  “I think its a wonderful idea…” Hannah began.  I held my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  “When can we start?!” she finished.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I worked with Hannah, Maggie and Lynn, the Sophomore head teacher, to select an appropriate time for the Sophomores to meet with their mentors.  We finally decided to try this experiment out with a trial period of just 20 minutes, every Wednesday during the students’ afternoon break.

Working with my fellow teachers, especially Lynn, I completed the arduous task of matching mentors to Sophomores. Armed with my handy spreadsheets, we were able to pair mentor strengths with sophomore weaknesses.  The rest was just a matter of personality matching.  The list must have gone through 5 iterations before we finally got it right.

Yet I was not out of the woods yet.  After all, I hadn’t even asked the mentors if they’d do this.  I was fairly confident the Juniors would be on board, but the Seniors end their school day at the afternoon break.  I was asking the Seniors to stay after school, not to play basketball, but to help kids 2 years their juniors fuddle their way through chemistry homework.  The outcome was by no means certain.  As I had only 16 mentors for my 16 Sophomores, if just one of them refused, the program would be doomed.

Last week, I invited my potential mentors to a meeting.  I let them know they were being invited because they had been endorsed by one or more teacher for excellence in at least one course. That seemed enough to grab their interest.

So there I was, my heart in my throat, a classroom full of Seniors and Juniors staring at me with anticipation.  Thank goodness Carl was there to back me up, or I might have quailed.  Instead I spelled out the proposal and enumerated the benefits.

1. It will look awesome on your transcript.
2. You’ll be helping someone succeed.
3. In the process of teaching this material, you will master it at a whole new level.

It wasn’t a very inspiring speech, but it seems to have been enough to convince them.  When some of my Seniors hemmed and hawed, I gently reminded them of all the work I’d done for them after school, helping them revise their college application essays, and they capitulated quickly.  After that, all they wanted to know was whom they would be mentoring.

As I read through the list, I let each of them know what they would be helping their Sophomore with.  There was some good-natured jibing when a boy was teamed with a girl, and some sympathetic moaning when one of them got assigned with the class clown.  Yet they all seemed to latch onto the idea with surprising enthusiasm.

I left the meeting floating on air.  “They all agreed!” I cried, bounding into Lynn’s office.

“Great!” said Lynn.  Always a realist she couldn’t help but burst my bubble… “Let’s see if it works.”

Today we had our first mentor meeting.  Let me tell you.  It worked.

The students paired up and set to work almost immediately.  There was an air of deep study, as well as enthusiasm, as mentors helped guide their mentees through a tricky problem, or a tough bit of writing.  The spectacle attracted teachers and administrators.  Everyone who wasn’t busy at the moment stopped by to marvel at these kids actually having FUN while LEARNING.

Carl gave me a pat on the back.  Maggie gave me the thumbs up.  “The mentors, they’re really good teachers!” she remarked.  And Lynn… Lynn was smiling from ear to ear.  I knew exactly how she felt.  Our kids were getting the targeted support they needed, and rather than it being a chore, it was an event!

Those 20 minutes flew by.  When it was over, they did not want to leave.  “More time!” they demanded.  This from kids who sprint to the door at the sound of the bell.  I literally had to compel them to go take advantage of the 5 minute break remaining before classes resumed.  Even the seniors, who had no classes to return to, insisted that 20 minutes was “not nearly enough time!”

I feel so lucky to have such awesome students!  I am so proud of my Seniors and Juniors for taking on this task.  I am so proud of my Sophomores for taking full advantage of what we all worked so hard to provide for them.

Below you’ll find pictures and a video of this remarkable event.

And now we come to the moral of the story.  Trying to introduce something new to a Chinese school can seem like a Sisyphean undertaking.  However, with the help of teachers, administrators and especially students you CAN make a real positive change.  Never lose your optimism!  Never give up!  Make allies of your fellow teachers!  Make friends of your students!  Work within the system! If you do all this, you can make great things happen.

I’ll send you an update next month and let you know if this experiment bears fruit!

Right now I need to think of some way to reward my mentors for being so awesome!

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