Revisiting Mentor Voices

Man Training Woman On Computer In Office
In 2017 and 2018, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute published 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 learning environment to help students be successful. We thought it worthwhile to revisit these posts and again hear firsthand what mentors had to say about the work they actually do day to day and what it means to them.

Mentor Voices

Success in a Totally Virtual Program details one now mentor and former teacher navigating supportive relationships with students taking online courses in light of the limited face-to-face contact. This story reflects the challenges of not only supporting first-time online learners, but students who may be struggling with mental health issues as well. 

The Student Who Made It Anyway tells the story of working with students who everyone else has given up on, and who struggle to build positive relationships with adults. The mentor in this story did not give up on the student, rather they built a relationship with the student based on mutual respect and helped them understand the value of not only completing coursework towards a goal but following through on their word.  

Getting to Know Billy recounts the slow but meaningful relationship-building that took place between the mentor and a student in a fully online public school. While online learning has the perception of little interaction between instructors and students, this story serves as an example of how mentors go above and beyond to build and maintain relationships with students, supporting their academic development as well as their social and emotional development. 

Creating Conditions that Promote Success in Online Learning focuses on some small things mentors can do that have a big impact on their students. This mentor advocates for setting clear expectations and being upfront with students about the commitments in their online course. One-on-one individual check-ins with students and weekly digital communications are suggested as good ways to keep in touch with students and keep them aware of their obligations. Finally, this mentor praises good organization as essential to keeping up with students in different courses and focuses on student success as the benchmark to strive towards. 

Rural Virtual Learning details the challenges in building and growing an online learning program in a rural school with declining enrollment and limited teacher and infrastructure resources. The conscious effort to help students succeed has been critical to the success of this online program. This was accomplished through parent meetings, student online orientation trainings, regular digital communication, extra support for credit-recovery students, and early planning and preparation. 

Reflections of a Fourth-Year Mentor shares knowledge gained through four years of trial and error in mentoring students in a fully online program. This mentor provides foundational, practical advice and strongly suggests asking students about their available technology as well as their skill in using that technology. Relatedly, this mentor ensures students are able to successfully navigate their online courses. Sometimes, a students’ lack of progress may mean technological or logistical roadblocks exist, and shortcomings in progress are not caused by a students’ lack of effort or ability. Finally and most importantly, building relationships with students is critically important. 

Building Relationships recounts the set up of an online program in a public school district and discusses how critical relationship-building is to student success in online courses. Building relationships between mentors and online instructors and coordinating efforts to best serve students is also extremely important. 

Relationship Before Rules Equals Rejoicing discusses using The Developmental Assets Framework with students as a way to not only get to know students better, but to teach them important life skills to be successful beyond school. Through this development and a focus on relationships and student effort, this mentor has seen positive results. 

Takeaways From Revisiting Mentor Voices

By and large, the single most important thing mentioned by mentors of both fully online and face-to-face students is the singular importance of building a relationship with students. 

This relationship is so powerful because it holds students accountable to someone, gives students a place to look for support–both technological and emotional, and provides students an advocate in what can be an unfamiliar and intimidating place. 

Of course pragmatic recommendations such as dedicated online course work space, individual student meetings, weekly student check-ins and progress checks, online student orientations, and parental involvement matter greatly to student success, but it is the relationships mentors build with students that provide the most meaning for mentors and propel students to success online.

The Mentor Forum

In our Mentor Forum blog series, we discuss the role of mentors and mentoring in K-12 digital learning. Our hope with this series is to highlight the importance of mentoring, provide valuable resources, and further the discussion on best practices for mentoring online learners. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

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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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