This is the first 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]
Our district is somewhat unique in that we have a virtual program where we mentor students we may never personally meet. As mentors, this is a real challenge since all five of us are retired teachers who were used to that personal face-to-face contact that allows for the constant formative assessment of each of our students and the ability to continuously adjust our supports. Also, as a school of choice for eight counties, often we do not get our students’ records until a few months into the school year; if the student has been homeschooled, there may be no records. All of these factors make our weekly two-way contacts critical to developing a relationship with our students and determining the supports needed.
Although we all write our own weekly Wednesday check-in letters, we generally include the same information: some study tips or other useful information, a progress report, and questions requiring the student response. For example, if our tips include a list of characteristics of successful online learners, we may ask the students to evaluate themselves in terms of these characteristics. If we give study tips at exam time, we may ask students which tips they feel may be most helpful to them and how they will put the tips into practice. Early last school year, I asked the students I mentor how I could best help them. One student that I’ll call Emma told me that she would most need encouragement and a belief in her success.
Emma came to us in her senior year after having dropped from another school district part way through the second semester of her junior year. As I reviewed her transcript, I saw that she was a capable student who had passed all of her classes with grades of C or better prior to dropping out. This, of course, made me curious about why a student would abruptly leave a situation in which she had been successful. As I got to know Emma through our weekly emails and the occasional phone calls when issues arose, I came to believe that she had some fairly severe anxiety issues. (We have found that many of our transfer students — particularly our female students — suffer from anxiety or depression or have experienced negative social issues such as bullying.) This let me know that Emma would need extra praise when I saw that she was doing well and gentle prodding when she fell behind. On one occasion, I emailed her when I noticed she had not logged into her classes for several days. She let me know that her internet was down and that she was going to try to get to the library or a friend’s house to log in. (She could email from her phone.) I suggested that she let all of her virtual instructors know of her issue so that they would know she was a conscientious student. Many of her teachers thanked her for letting them know and reassured her that they would be willing to work with her when she was able to continue. Another time when I asked why she was behind, Emma reported having computer problems. We were able to provide her with a Chromebook so she could continue her work.
Eventually, Emma became more comfortable with reaching out to me and her instructors. She would ask her instructors directly to reopen tests or assignments if there were technical issues and ask for clarification when she did not understand the task. I would get emails where she reported feeling overwhelmed. I tried to respond as immediately as I could by letting her know that she was actually progressing quite well or by suggesting an assignment that she could focus on to feel the most success. When it came closer to the time for her to graduate, she asked for more frequent progress reports and reassurances that she was on-track for getting her diploma. I’m happy to report that Emma proudly wore that cap and gown! Sometimes mentoring involves something as simple as being available to give an encouraging word.