Nothing is more exciting than helping a child find their passion – but are the adults ready?
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In twenty years of helping children, families, and schools harness the power of interest-based mentoring, I’ve seen how it provides transformative educational experiences. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of building a successful program, which I’ll share in my final post.
But I’ve also learned, sometimes the hard way, that it’s critical to slow down and do a readiness assessment before jumping in. It’s one thing, after all, to talk about the power of mentoring; another to actually take responsibility for unleashing a young person into the community to learn with a non-teacher adult.
So before we start putting up posters and recruiting young people into mentoring, it’s worthwhile asking ourselves a key ideological question: Are we – and our school communities – truly ready to let students lead their own out-of-school learning?
When I became assistant director of an interest-based mentorship program at a charter school in New Mexico, I was certain my answer to this question was a hard “yes.” But I was thrown for a loop when 14-year-old Rachel walked into my office and declared she knew exactly what she wanted to explore for her mentorship.
“I’m going to learn to fly,” she said.
I swallowed. “Any second options?”
Nope. Rachel was dead set on aviation and wanted to know how we could get her flying mentorship started.
I asked her to give me some time and checked in with the director and founder of the program, a visionary educator named Paquita Hernandez. I expected some coaching on how to guide Rachel to an alternative area of interest–one that did not entail a risk of, well, death.
“Aviation!” Paquita exclaimed. “Wonderful! Let’s call the local airport and see if we can find a flight instructor for her.”
When I asked about the risks, Paquita explained it to me this way: If the seasoned authorities who regulated flying were okay with adolescents in the cockpit, then why would a couple of educators who knew nothing about flying get in the way? So we called the airport, learned that Rachel was certainly old enough for lessons (though too young to earn her license), and with the full support of her parents, she was flying within a few weeks. At the end of the year, Rachel proudly shared a video of her and her instructor piloting a small plane thousands of feet above the New Mexican desert.
Nothing is more exciting than helping a child find their passion – but are the adults ready?”Let’s Make This Happen”: Following Student Interests to Interest-Based Mentoring Click To Tweet
For educators seeking to harness the power of interest-based mentoring, that image of a 14-year-old flying a plane offers a powerful ideological litmus test. We all say we want to help our students soar. But are we ready to literally let them fly?
In my case, it took me some time, and a few more conversations with Paquita, until I felt comfortable facilitating this mentorship. My own schooling experiences as a child had been absent of any sort of risk: a humdrum, safe procession from one classroom to the next, interrupted only by the rare field trip to a museum or other contained space. Unconsciously, I’d adopted the belief that an educator’s job was to control the environment so that students avoid any sort of real-world danger. This belief had only been reinforced by professors in my teacher training courses, who were quick to share horror stories of teacher negligence and disregard for the sacred in loco parentis. Allowing Rachel to pursue a passion that was far out of my control was so foreign to my understanding of the profession that I had to unlearn what I understood a teacher to be.
Slowly, I was able to make the shift. In facilitating these interest-based mentorships, my job was not to control student experiences but to help them arrive at these experiences. I was no longer the tour guide but the bus driver, dropping them off at the destination they chose and wishing them the best. Whereas before, I’d often found myself trying to appease some eager student with that old teacher adage —“wait till you’re older” — I learned now to say, like Paquita, “Let’s make this happen.”
In the years that followed, I would go on to set up young people in mentorships welding heavy machinery, building off-the-grid homes with chainsaws, blowing glass in thousand-degree flames, mountain biking in Moab, snowboarding, rock climbing, doing parkour, and trapezing. In every case, the parents signed off, the insurance company approved the activity, and the mentors, as part of their expertise, kept the young people safe.
To be clear, safety is not the only concern. Young people can get fixated on exploring fields that we, as adults, may not think are best for them, fields that do not match our own aspirations for them and their careers. If we’re dead set on Tommy becoming a doctor, how do we respond when he brushes aside any suggestion of a mentorship in medicine and instead pursues skateboarding or Manga art? What do we do when Andrea, a natural leader who claims she has designs on the presidency, announces her mentorship will be in astrology or pet grooming?
There are, of course, common sense limits to what an interest-based mentorship can be. For example, I’ve had to work carefully to help identify productive areas of exploration for more than one young person who insisted they had zero interest in anything other than playing video games or watching TV. But the underlying pedagogical approach for a successful interest-based mentorship program must be “Let’s make this happen,” even if it appears, to our adult eye, that time and talent are being lost.
After all, the deeper intent of an interest-based mentorship is not to help children get ready for a particular career, though that does happen. No, it is not preparation we are offering young people, but validation. Through these mentorships, we are giving children a real experience with what it means to be taken seriously, to have your voice heard and your dreams supported. We are giving them the opportunity to turn inward, identify what really matters to them, and bring that care and interest into the world. We are letting them learn to know themselves. This type of validation won’t be found in any state standards, but in a world that seems to be reinventing itself every generation, its value cannot be overstated.
Therein lies the true power of interest-based mentorships. As National Mentoring Month comes to a close, I encourage all educators to keep their eye on this prize, this view of mentoring as a pathway to self-knowledge. Because in the end, what bigger gift can we offer our students than the chance to let them fly?
This is the second of a three-part series for The Educators’ Room on interest-based mentoring programs. I’ll be sharing one more posts in the upcoming weeks with tips for helping educators launch their own simple, small interest-based mentoring programs. If you can’t wait till then, you can find some general resources about mentoring at mentoring.org, or feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com–if the topic’s interest-based mentorships, I’ll always find a moment to share.
A graduate of Brown University (BA) and the University of New Mexico (MA and Ed.S), Seth Biderman is an experienced educator and school administrator. He has worked in public and independent schools in New York City; Cali, Colombia; Washington, DC; and Santa Fe, NM. He has also founded and directed out-of-school mentorship programs to connect young people with areas of personal passion. Most recently he was principal of the 7th and 8th grades and Arts, Languages and Movement program at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School in DC.
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