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Better measures of quality: Mentoring

July 24, 2011

A long time ago, I promised to try to write about things that might constitute better measures of the quality of schools and colleges, beyond standardized test scores, endowments, and rankings. My first two in this series described how National Merit and College Lists are poor measures of the quality of a high school. In this third post, I want to describe a measure I think does indicate the quality of a school, Mentoring.

Mentoring as the holy grail of education

Recently, I heard a story by Brian Carpenter, which he’s now written up in this must read blog post (seriously, go read this now):

In this post, Brian describes the exact moment in which he transformed a student’s life. A student comes to office hours with a question, clearly presenting a door of opportunity for the teaher. How many times have you been in this moment, busy and dreading the stack of grading ahead of you? How tempted have you been to close this door by appearing too busy to be disturbed, instead of engaging the student in a long conversation?

Instead, Brian chose to open the door, and chose to help a student explore her interest in electronics, meeting regularly over the summer with her, and then inviting her to be a TA for his engineering class. Of course, you could judge power of Brian’s influence by the fact that she ultimately landed an internship and job offer before even graduating high school, or acceptance to MIT, but I think his student’s words are the most powerful of all…

Before your class, I was not much into science—it all seems sort of lackluster and boring. But then modeling physics came along and suddenly I was being taught real science: the kind that made me think and defend my beliefs and venture into the unknown.

When was the last time a student’s world was this transformed by a PSAT score, National Merit Scholarship or even acceptance at a college?

As a parent of an 9 month old, thankfully years away having to make decisions about where to go to school, I will say this: if a school could some how ensure an experience like Brian’s student for my daughter, my search for a school would be over, no more questions asked.

One question to measure the quality of a school

Here’s how any school can begin to measure itself according to this standard. The cost is minimal—simply survey your student body, and ask the following question:

Is there an adult in this community that you consider to be a mentor? Someone you can go to if you need help, advice or feedback?

This is exactly the question Shipley School asked of its students when it undertook a significant study to explore how its students define success and what factors are most likely to help them achieve it, and some of their findings were quite startling:

In surveys given a year earlier, our research team had been confronted by an alarming statistic: 33 percent of first-year students and 25 percent of sophomores said there was no significant adult in the school community they could go to when they needed help, advice, or feedback.

This finding led Shipley to completely redesign their advisement system, which previously had a transient quality as students often switched advisors every year, toward a system designed to foster stronger mentoring relationships between younger students and faculty.

Being mentored means having an adult that takes an active interest in the life of a student, providing advice and counsel focused at least partially on the student’s long term future. Often, mentoring lasts even beyond the time when the student and teacher are working directly with one another in a classroom on on a team. Ask any student who truly has experienced a mentoring relationship, and he or she will likely tell you of its transformative effect. This is why I believe that mentoring, specifically, the number of students on campus who experience a mentoring relationship should be a measure of quality of a school. This metric also does a good job of passing the statistic/story test—it is easily quantified by the question above, but probing students slightly deeper on this question yields a wealth of anecdotes that bring the community of a school to life.

Mentoring and student success

Mentoring also turns out to be a key to academic success, and so focusing on it will improve a school by most other traditional measures as well. In its study, Shipley found that its happiest and most successful students were those that could identify an adult mentor in their lives. Similarly, Harvard Professor Richard Light, in a study of over 2000 undergraduates identified 9 factors that led to student happiness and success. Here is how he described one of his most important findings, in the excellent book detailing the study, Making the Most of College (this should be required reading of all students and teachers):

Students who get the most out of college, who grow the most academically, and who are happiest, organize their time to include activities with faculty members or several other students focused on accomplishing substantive academic work. for some students this is difficult. Interacting in depth with faculty members or even fellow students around substantive work does not always come naturally.

Light was so impressed by this finding that he a specific question to his “get to know you” chat with his freshman advisees. Here’s how the conversation went:

Light: so what is your job in college?
Student: to get good grades.
Light: ok, that’s great, but what is your real job?
Student: oh, I see. It’s to discover my passion and figure out my career.
Light: That too, is great, but what is your real job?
Student: I know, it’s to make a difference in the world?
Light: again, that’s great, but not what I’m looking for. What is your real job?
Student: I give up.

It is at this point that Light tells the student his/her job is to get to know one faculty member that semester really well, and he tells the student that if s/he takes this seriously, and does this, then by the time s/he graduates, s/he will have eight faculty members who know him/her really well, and be instrumental in helping that student to select a future career path, develop a deep interest and more. Light describes these findings and more in a great video series on the college experience.

Recently the NY Times also reported on a Stanford Education Study that academic coaching boost graduation rates.:

The researchers calculated a 10-percent to 15-percent increase in retention rates among those who had received coaching and mentoring — a finding of no small import at a moment when hundreds of thousands of students are dropping out before graduation, or taking upward of six years to complete their degrees.

Why schools must make mentoring a priority

Why should schools care about mentoring more than PSAT scores, college lists, or other distinctions? Quite simply, I think mentoring is one of those things that only schools can initiate on a large scale, simply for the fact that most students have little idea of the possibilities for developing a mentoring relationship with faculty and how thoroughly it can transform their lives. Every kid is force fed the value of better SAT score from almost kindergarten, and they all know that there are plenty of organizations out there willing to take their money to help them achieve a higher score. But very few of them know just how powerful connecting with an adult as a mentor can be in transforming their lives, and not even the 40,000 a year private college counselors can do much to make this happen for a student.

When I was in high school, the idea of having a mentor was a foreign concept to me. Even though I had some great relationships with teachers, I still never saw them as mentors, never sought them out for advice, and would often be shocked to see them in everyday places outside of school, like the grocery store. Unfortunately, I carried this same attitude into college, so even though had many opportunities to develop a mentoring relationship with a professor, such as working on an independent study, I never really built what I would define as a mentoring relationship. But at the time, I probably thought I was very connected to my professors—I simply didn’t know what was possible.

It wasn’t until became a boarding school teacher, and found myself in the role as a potential mentor that I began to understand mentoring really was. The first sign was that my students started to see me as a person, not just as a teacher, and most importantly, they saw me as a fallible human, who could be grumpy, exhausted and make mistakes. It’s not that I don’t make mistakes now as a day school teacher in the classroom (believe me, I do), but the the fact that the day doesn’t really end at 3:30 in a boarding school makes it much more likely that students will get to see the mistakes—when I come home exhausted from a day teaching and have to dive right into dorm duty, and my exhaustion is visible in my face, and my less than patient interactions with the freshmen under my charge. I think it’s this human connection that makes mentoring possible. My best mentors have been people I can empathize with and understand, not the superhuman colleague or acquaintance that never seems to make mistakes.

This is something that is sort of built into the fabric of boarding school—students drop by at the strangest hours, just to chat, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in a deep conversation about an issue that student is really struggling with, and these conversations grow into relationships that really help to guide students throughout their lives.

But these relationships certainly aren’t limited to boarding schools, or even private schools. They can crop up anywhere adults take in intentional interest in the life of a child. The story of Brian Carpenter’s extraordinary influence on a student took place at the Laurel School, an all-girls day school in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

How to foster mentoring relationships on campus

Mentoring relationships happening at schools all around the world, but very few schools are working intentionally to create them. Here are a few things schools can do to encourage the growth of these relationships:

  1. Put advising programs on equal footing with other teaching responsibilities. It’s hard for teachers to be good mentors when it’s tacked on as a sixth or seventh thing for a teacher to do. If schools want teachers to become mentors, we need to make room on their plate for this huge responsibility, and give them the training and tools to do this.
  2. Build regular time into the day for advisement. It’s been said you can see what a school values by looking at its schedule. This is especially true when it comes to advising/mentoring. Are there blocks of time set aside for teachers and students to meet informally and form these bonds? Are students required to check in with their advisor?
  3. Leave room for serendipity: If your teachers and students are working at 110% all of the time, it’s highly unlikely that students will ever be willing to take the spontaneous risks like nRT did when she asked Brian Carpenter to teach her something extra, and it’s even less likely that teachers will find the time to positively respond to those requests.
  4. Find a balance between student choice and continuity: The mentor relationship can’t be forced. Some students and teachers just don’t click, and it would be better to build an advising system with some level of choice so that students can choose advisors they think will be more compatible. At the same time, a few students will use this flexibility as an opportunity to minimize connection with/”interference by” adults by changing advisors every year.
  5. Provide mentors with training. Rarely do we expect teachers just tho walk into the classroom and be excellent—we provide them with all sorts of professional development to improve classroom instruction. Why not do the same thing with training mentors? The Stanley King Counseling Institute is a good start.
  6. Keep advising groups small: There’s a reason why a master artist, scientist or craftsman only takes on a few apprentices at a time. That’s all she/he can effectively mentor. If you want teachers to do this kind of transformative mentoring, schools need to cap advising groups to fewer than 10 in order facilitate these relationships. This also means schools need more mentors; often, if they’re willing to look beyond the traditional core of teaching faculty, schools can find excellent mentors in the most unexpected of places. One of the best mentors at my former school were the former Director of Communications.

My metric for an excellent school

So if you show me a school that takes mentoring seriously, has taken measures like those above to foster these relationships, surveys its student body to chart its progress, and celebrates stories of these relationships, I’ll show you a truly great school. I’ll take great mentoring over high standardized test scores, or rankings on the deeply flawed Challenge Index any day. I bet, if you’ve got a strong mentoring program, you won’t even have to make that choice. Get mentoring right, and you’ll see gains in all the other metrics as well.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. chrisharrow permalink
    July 24, 2011 7:25 am

    Brilliant post, John. You’ve captured so much great stuff here.
    While I agree whole-heartedly with your comments, my only push-back from the perspective of school leadership regards reluctant faculty. Just as some students may surf advisors seeking less interference, there are also many faculty who don’t want to be mentors. How do we inspire otherwise good teachers to embrace the deep, but hard work that is mentoring?

    • July 24, 2011 10:55 pm

      This is a great question, and probably something that could be a blog post on its own. It’s also something I don’t have a great answer to.

      If a school sets a priority of academic excellence, I don’t think it would be satisfied with a teacher who is complacent in the classroom but outstanding as a coach. I think that school would focus on finding ways to improve that teacher’s teaching. But it often may be the case that the teacher doesn’t even understand what is possible in the classroom, and so that’s why schools often engaged teachers with professional development, classroom visits, arranging for teacher mentor relationships (mentoring can be just as powerful for adults), etc to help teachers expand their horizons and grow.

      So I think the first step is probably to help students and faculty see what’s possible in mentoring. This means accurately assessing the current state of mentoring, and also sharing the stories of bright spots of mentoring, like the post by Brian Carpenter I shared in the post. I think many students and some faculty don’t realize just how big of an impact developing a strong student teacher relationship can have in the life of a student. It is also important to break down these stories into the step by step process that led to the relationship—it’s too easy for reluctant faculty to see these stories as the result of a “gifted” teacher or “student” developing some extraordinary relationship out of the blue, when the reality is it often began much more simply—by not simply dismissing a question, or being a little less busy during office hours.

      Finally, I think it is important to remind faculty that mentoring is the glue that makes everything better. No matter what your particular goal—higher AP scores, better college acceptances, more championships, almost all of them can be improved by creating better culture of mentoring at a school. If adults are taking a more active interest in the lives of students, and helping them to develop as people, they will, almost certainly achieve more on every standard.

    • Agnes permalink
      July 27, 2011 11:46 am


      This type of observation (“my only push-back from the perspective of school leadership regards reluctant faculty”) frustrates me to no end. I see it as the knee-jerk reaction of an administration that wants to maintain the status quo and blame it on someone else.
      My experience has shown me that most teachers are more than willing to go the extra mile, and the extra two miles. I work with them and see it every day.

      Yes, it is true that you do run into your cantankerous and uncooperative faculty member now and again, but that is certainly not the norm. When you do have a large number of reluctant faculty, it is often not a people/employee problem, but likely a situation problem (“Switch.”) As John explains in this post, key point number one is: “Put advising programs on equal footing with other teaching responsibilities.” Do not keep adding on to teachers’ responsibility plates without taking stuff off.

      Truth is, on the whole, we teachers in this country are a fairly compliant and easygoing lot.

  2. July 24, 2011 11:44 am

    The experience at a lot of universities is that forced adviser pairings rarely result in mentoring. The mentoring comes more by luck than by administration—students happening to click with a particular professor and joining them in research. About the best you can do is to set up lot of faculty-student informal interactions (requiring open office hours, for example, or having weekly afternoon tea).

    What ends up happening with formal advising at research universities is that either it is off-loaded to staff advisers who do bureaucratic check-ins with little useful advice (at least in STEM fields) or a small number of faculty end up with all the advisees and no time to mentor them. At the undergrad level, mentoring rarely occurs with the formal adviser.

    • July 24, 2011 10:58 pm

      Yes, there’s a lot of luck involved in mentoring, but I believe that with training and establishing a priority, the mentoring an entire faculty provides can be improved. I’m not in favor of forced pairings, and I think you are right, the more moments you set for informal student-faculty interactions, the more likely you are to develop strong mentoring relationships. This was one of the major facets of my experience, which simply thanks to the luxury of having faculty and students live together in the same building simply oozed with these opportunities.

  3. Becca permalink
    July 24, 2011 1:46 pm

    I love this post. You’re so right about the importance of students having mentors in their lives. I think your comment about having time built into the day for advising is really crucial. But I’m wondering if there’s more a school can do beyond just putting that time in the schedule in order to really promote forming meanginful relationships. In my high school, every student had an advisor, and twice a week we had 15 minutes at the beginning of the day for “advisor meetings”: all 8 or so advisees with their advisor just to check in/chat about whatever. I had three different advisors in 7th-9th grade, then a fourth one in 10th grade, who remained my advisor through senior year. With that last advisor, advisor meetings were great: I got to know him, and he really used the time to find out how we were doing and get a pulse on what was going on in our lives. He was one of my most important mentors in high school. With all my other advisors, though, the meetings felt kind of useless. The conversations were like pulling teeth, and I don’t feel like I ever really got to know any of them. Do you think there’s something schools can do to help assure that the time they set aside for advising is well-used? I don’t have any answers to this, but it seems worth putting some thought into.

    On a separate note, I think my school had a pretty good way of dealing with the choice vs. continuity issue: students stayed with the same advisor for 9th-12th grade, unless at the end of 9th grade the student requested to switch, in which case they could. Either way, students had at least 3 years with the same advisor, assuming the advisor didn’t leave the school. The only thing I didn’t like about that system was that when students requested to switch they weren’t able to request who their new advisor was, so it was still kind of a toss-up. But it probably would have been a logistical nightmare for them to account for all students’ preferences and not overwhelm any advisor with too many advisees, so I’m not sure if there is a better solution to that.

    • July 24, 2011 11:04 pm

      This is a great question—though I am no expert, I think a question along the lines of Richard Light’s to a student is a great place to start in the mentoring relationship. Often, talking with an adult for 15 minutes even once a week without an agenda can seem like a total waste of time. So why not explain to them the purpose of such conversations from the very beginning—the purpose of these conversations is to build a relationship that will change your life. That sounds super hokey, so it might be better to have seniors or upperclassmen explain this to underclassmen by having them talk about how their mentoring relationships have affected them, and how they all began with a bunch of seemingly pointless open and honest conversations with an adult.

      I’ve seen schools handle the choice question in all sorts of ways. Two schools I attended assigned new students automatically, and then allowed students at the end of the year to pref their top three choices. This seemed to work well. Another school assigns students into advisory groups that last for three years, and no switching is possible. This has an advantage of bring a diverse group of students together that often bond quite well together, but I’m not sure it ultimately leads to the best mentoring.

  4. July 25, 2011 10:49 pm

    Wow. I’ve never seen my name in print that many times. Thanks for the kind words.

    I love your suggestions, especially #3. I think that even as advisors and advisees are paired up, an advisor should feel free to pair up their charges with other teachers that can foster and develop that student’s interests, while continuing to maintain their own relationship. In essence, the teacher can direct the “get to know one faculty a semester” in the beginning, as most 9th graders probably don’t feel ready to strike up a conversation with one of their teachers.


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