Mentoring Best Practices Tips: Teach for America

Teach For America’s Top 5 Mentorship Tips

By Chante Chambers and Jasmine Sanders

Chante Chambers is a vice president of recruitment at Teach For America. Jasmine Sanders is a director of recruitment at Teach For America.

Being the first person in your family on the path to attend college can be intimidating. You may not know what is required of you during the application process, or what resources are available to you – and family members who want to help aren’t able to draw upon their own experiences to do so.

For such students, getting to college is only half the battle. Once in an undergraduate setting there are new systems to navigate, new cultures to become acquainted with, and new expectations to live up to. All of this “newness” can be detrimental without the proper supports in place. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

Students who face this challenge deserve to learn how to effectively operate in college, develop their leadership potential, and experience academic equity and access which contribute to successful lives. Mentorship plays a critical role in helping them get there.

This past year we helped Teach For America and Fisk University partner on a first-generation college mentorship students – with several students pursuing STEM degrees. Below are the top five tips we’ve learned for helping historically underrepresented students pursue their passion for STEM education.

  1. Consistency: During the initial stages of the relationship, consistency is critical.  If you schedule time with your mentee, it’s important to follow through, keep the appointment, and be on time.  Naturally, things come up and appointments may have to be missed, but clear and early communication to mentees about missed appointments is important.  In the trust-building process, consistency is extremely beneficial, so this is key.
  1. Patience and Vulnerability: Patience is important in developing any genuine relationship.  When you think about the relationships that have been most beneficial, sincere and longstanding, they are more than likely bonds that took time to develop.  Your BFF didn’t become your best friend in a week!  Don’t be discouraged if it takes some time for the mentor relationship to grow and flourish—it’s completely natural. A common misconception in mentoring relationships is that the mentee is required to be open, while the mentor serves as a the reserved counselor.  In order for the mentorship to be a mutual learning experience, it requires the mentor to be just as, if not more, vulnerable with the mentee.  The mentor should be able to model sharing openly with their mentee to create an environment of shared trust.  If a mentee consistently witnesses a mentor being open and vulnerable about their areas of growth, goals, concerns, etc. the mentee will in turn be more willing to share their own experiences as well. 
  1. Clear Expectations/Goals: Setting clear expectations and goals is vital in mentor relationships.  It’s helpful in the beginning to set clear expectations around what each party wants out of the relationship.  What do you hope to gain from this mentor relationship? What do you expect to give to make this mentor relationship successful?  What personal goals would you like to accomplish?  What can we hold each other accountable to achieving in this relationship?  These are just a few questions to get the ball rolling on setting individual and collective expectations/goals around the mentorship connection. 
  1. Confidentiality: During the first stage of the relationship, it is important to establish confidentiality.  The mentor should let the mentee know that whatever he or she wants to share with the mentor about their experience will remain confidential. Confidentiality, particularly actively and consistently practicing confidentiality in your mentor relationship, develops trust.  This supports the ability to be vulnerable, yet safe, in difficult conversations
  1. Suspending Judgment/Assuming the best: Mentor relationships can be tricky to navigate; these are often connections where neither the mentor nor the mentee know a lot about the other person.  The beauty of diversity is that naturally folks will have many differences—whether it’s something as significant as cultural, racial or language differences or something less obvious like norms around communication—it’s normal for mentors and mentees to have disparities around how they operate/function.  Given this, it’s critical that both mentors and mentees suspend judgment and assume the best in each other despite differences in communication, working styles, etc. 

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