Mentorship in Teaching

Jon Ten Brink

Some students just stick with you. We only worked together for a year, but I will never forget J. He was trying to finish his collegiate career; his third attempt at finishing his senior year after twice giving up mid semester. J was plagued by a myriad of barriers. He struggled with mental health issues and was regularly overwhelmed. His enthusiasm for the subject was palpable in person, but he struggled to focus his attention on completing the necessary work. I knew this was his last chance, but how do you help a student who will not do what needs to be done?

We started with the clearest of directives. We broke down what needed to be done in a series of goals for the semester, the month, the week, and the day. We soon discovered he still needed more specificity and we made a daily schedule broken down by the hour and, at times, to the minute. He set alarms on his watch. We built in reminders and secondary deadlines. This helped. Everything was moving smoothly, relatively speaking, until the draft of his recital notes was due. The day before this massive undertaking needed to be reviewed by a panel of music professors, he had written barely a word. This was a milestone marker—failure to produce the document would stall his chances to graduate.

I sat J in my office, at my computer at 10 AM that morning and told him he would not leave until it was completed. Between giving lessons I checked on his progress and helped edit and guide his process. Nearly 12 hours later, still in my office sitting at my computer, he completed the document, which passed the prescreening the next day. He graduated later that year.

J taught me a valuable lesson on what it takes to be a teacher. It would be easy to write off his struggles; to see a student who would not follow through and let him fail. Finding a way to help him achieve his goal took time, it took energy, and it took creativity. If my role is merely to give information, point the way, and get out of the way, letting students pass or fail solely on their merits brought into the classroom, how many students would get left behind, and what am I really teaching? However, if my role is to help students achieve their goals, I need to do more. Teaching isn’t presenting information. It is mentorship. It is exhausting. And it is so worth it to see your students succeed.