With community volunteers in the classroom, students and teachers get support (Opinion)

Juggling the demands of classroom instruction, standardized testing, and giving all students the individualized attention they need can seem impossible, even to the most qualified teachers. This can be a difficult load to bear on your own. As a former teacher, I have experienced this stress myself. Now, as a public school principal, I have been looking for ways to ease the burden on my teachers and staff. Sometimes what you need isn’t better books or more time in school, it’s another pair of hands.

Few teachers, especially in public schools, are fortunate enough to have the resources necessary for regular classroom support. Even fewer classrooms can regularly offer one-on-one time to struggling students who are at different skill levels. It’s not just about helping them reach their level of comprehension, but also fostering enthusiasm in basic subjects like math and reading.

There is a ripe untapped resource to create this vision of a whole classroom: volunteer community members who can serve as academic mentors. Adding mentors to the classroom is a simple, logical, and inexpensive way to help teachers, and I believe it is critical in closing the gaps in achievement, opportunity, and support.

Many hands make the work light

According to the National Mentoring Partnership, students who regularly meet with mentors are 54% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school. and 37% less likely to skip classes. The constant presence of a caring adult also motivates students socially and emotionally. At-risk students who regularly meet with a mentor are 46% less likely than their peers to start using drugs and 81% more likely to participate in sports and extracurricular activities on a regular basis.

I had the chance to see these effects firsthand. At the Jackson Mann K-8 School in Boston, of which I’m the principal, we have about a dozen volunteer college mentors who come in every week. This is thanks to our partnership with Boston Partners in Education, a local nonprofit organization that recruits, trains and selects volunteer community members to mentor at no cost to schools. Each mentor is paired with a student or a small group that has been appointed by their teacher to receive personalized support.

Our mentors commit to at least one hour per week for an entire academic year, working closely with the teacher to reinforce academic goals and build relationships with students. Teachers plan lessons with mentors in advance and provide them with a preview of the content that will be covered. These academic mentors do not replace the training and experience our teachers bring to the table, but help complement daily teaching and develop students’ academic and personal confidence. After all, it is the bond between teachers and students – their insight and expertise – that enables them to identify who needs an academic mentor most.

Mentoring can be especially helpful for students learning English. We have many English language learners who struggle to connect socially. When we informed the mentoring program of this need, they started sending mentors who spoke Arabic and Spanish to work with our students in their native languages. These student-mentor relationships have become much more than academics; they also provided a time of day when English learners could connect with adults without worrying about speaking a language other than the one they were most familiar with. It is a joy to see these students smile from ear to ear when their mentors introduce themselves.

A beneficial partnership

Mentorship programs are also a real boon for teachers in a number of ways. It is not uncommon in our school for an academic mentor to stay with the same teacher for several years in a row. Many of my fellow teachers say how grateful they are to have another reliable, professional and efficient adult in the classroom. Teachers are then better able to manage their class and devote their attention to the whole group. Some mentors have also gone the extra mile to share updates on student progress and highlight individual challenges the teacher may not have encountered in class. These comments helped teachers create new learning opportunities or worksheets specifically tailored to the skills students need to develop.

Across the country, there are education partners and similar nonprofits that work with school-based mentoring – from Austin, Texas, in Charleston, South Carolina, in Jackson, Miss., in Tulsa, Okla., in Indianapolis and San Francisco, Just to name a few. It is up to us, educators, to express our need for this type of assistance. Local communities need to know that we will have support beyond pencils, papers and books.

Through increased community involvement, students can develop the critical skills, self-confidence and motivation they need to recognize and realize their full potential. By opening the doors to our schools, we can in turn open doors for students, creating classrooms that give them the attention they deserve.

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