Reflections of a Fourth Year Mentor

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This is the sixth in a series of blog posts written by Michigan Virtual’s Regional Mentor Leaders to bring to life what mentors do to build and maintain a supportive online learner environment to help students be successful. If you are a mentor and would like to share a strategy, a success story, or another topic that illustrates how you support students, please email [email protected]
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I am a mentor in a totally virtual K-12 program. As a former special education teacher, used to being able to fairly quickly assess my students’ academic skills and work ethic, it has been a challenge for me to work with students I may never meet. For those in a similar situation who are new to mentoring, I have some advice, some of which I am embarrassed to admit results from mistakes or mistaken assumptions I have made.

The first thing I would advise is to ask about the student’s technological devices and skills. In my first year of mentoring, I had three high school students who made little to no progress in any of their classes during the first semester, despite my weekly emails and many phone contacts.  Each accepted my offer to meet personally so I could help them get off to a better start for the new term. In all three cases, one of the main problems was that the students did not have any kind of Word program on their computer and were trying to submit assignments that the instructors couldn’t open. (And none had understood the teacher comments asking them to resubmit in a different format.)  Once I helped them load a free office program and showed them the correct format in which to save and submit the assignment, they were on their way. Now I ask any new students if they can upload, download, submit assignments, and navigate the internet. I make it clear that I will not judge any inexperience, but need to know as a guide to assist. I also ask students to tell me immediately about any issues with devices and internet connection because at times I have needed to help a student obtain a working computer or notebook and/or have suggested places with more reliable internet connections so students did not have to miss working in classes while repairs were being made.

The second thing I would advise is somewhat related to the first: Make sure that both you and your students are proficient in navigating the various course platforms. If I had been reading the teacher comments regarding the inability to open assignments, I may have been able to intervene before the students had met with so much frustration. It is also important that you and your students know how to find (and use!) the pacing guides, how to submit assignments, where to find the gradebook, and how to contact the instructors. I strongly encourage students to complete the orientation information for their platform(s). When it is obvious from a question that they haven’t, my broken record response is to point out where in the orientation they can find the answer.

Finally, while the first two pieces of advice are important, developing a good relationship with your students is probably the biggest piece of advice I could give. Research has shown that it is important that the student trust the mentor so that open communication and collaborative problem solving can occur. In a totally virtual program it can be difficult to get to know students, but one simple way is to ask some questions about extracurricular activities and hobbies as part of the student’s EDP.  You can then incorporate some of this information in your weekly check-ins as a way to open some dialog.

These are some of my ideas of how to help students in a totally virtual program.  As you gain experience as a mentor, I hope you will share any advice you have as well as ways that you have found to develop relationships with your students!

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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