Rewards of mentoring: Smiles, handmade awards and deep bonds

If you can't save all the starfish washed on the shore, should you give up on saving any? (AP Image)

If you can't save all the starfish washed on the shore, should you give up on saving any? (AP Image)

Here is a lovely essay from Bill Fokes, whose name may be familiar to regular AJC readers as he is a prolific letter writer. Today, he writes about the joy he has found in mentoring students:

By William B. Fokes

About five years ago, I attended a Christmas party in my new neighborhood. As I met my new neighbors, we asked each other about our interests and activities. One of my neighbors was very enthusiastic about a volunteer mentoring program in which he was active. This was the start of my path to great rewards. The program he described involves students in elementary school, middle school and high school in Jackson County, Georgia. The focus of the program is students living in single parent households. The name of the program is Lindsay’s Legacy. Similar programs are active in other counties, but not in my home county of Gwinnett.

My neighbor explained that each mentor commits to spend about one hour per week with a student, one-on-one, at the school, throughout the school year. I am very fond of young people (especially my three grandsons) and I know how important they are to our country’s future. As we talked, I told him I was interested, but did not know how to be a youth mentor. The program he described includes a three-hour orientation session, but I did not think that would adequately train me for the important duties of mentoring. He managed to convince me that I would do fine, so I volunteered. I submitted my fingerprints and other information for a background check, then attended an orientation class with other volunteers, a school counselor and a trainer.

I learned that all mentors may select the grade level of the students they will mentor. The school counselor, who has met the mentors and students, matches each mentor with a student. My first student was a sixth grader. Before my first meeting with him, I was afraid that I might fail as a mentor. After all, I was a 64-year-old retired corporate attorney. How could I relate to a sixth grade boy? Then I remembered that each student and his parent must actually request a mentor before being assigned one by the school counselor. In effect, my role as mentor had been pre-approved by student, parent and counselor. That is a good start, I thought.

I decided to start off with my student by asking questions and seriously listening to learn his interests. My student was friendly and outgoing, so it was easy. As we talked over time, we developed a lot of mutual trust. In addition to talking, we sometimes played games, tossed baseballs or footballs outside, or shot basketball in the gym. All activity was on school grounds. After establishing a relationship of mutual trust, I decided to confront my student about a problem I saw. He was almost passionately interested in violent video games and spent a lot of time playing them. I told him that this was a normal interest, but he should know that real violence is not fun at all. I requested that he replace most, if not all, of his video time with reading.

He grew quiet and I thought that our relationship was in danger. In fact, however, that talk resulted in a stronger bond between us. We began actively discussing his reading material (Percy Jackson series) and enjoyed each other even more throughout the school year.

I had a similar experience with another student who was caught cheating on a test. I spent my whole hour with him one day, explaining that he was only cheating himself of the opportunity for a successful future. He was very quiet that day but since then he has stayed out of trouble and we have developed stronger mutual trust. I have many more stories I could tell.

So far, I have mentored six different students, typically mentoring two per year, all year – sometimes for several years. When I see in their eyes that we have established a bond, I get an incredibly warm glow. When I have serious talks with them, I feel that I am doing something important. When I see how desperately these students want to have an adult they can trust and relate to, I know I am needed. When each school year is over, the sincere gratitude expressed by these students pays me many times over for my efforts. When students move away, they (and sometimes their parents) tell me how much they will miss me (and I miss them). Others go out of their way to proudly introduce me to their fellow students. One student decided, on his own, to make a hand-drawn, framed certificate, proclaiming me world’s best mentor. These are just a few of my great rewards. Other mentors share similar stories with me.

Lindsay’s Legacy tells a parable about a “starfish slinger.” The parable starts with an older man walking one morning along a deserted beach. The previous night, a violent storm washed thousands of starfish onto the beach, stretching to all the way to the horizon. As he looked further, he saw a solitary, younger man who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and tossing them into the water. The older man asked, “What are you doing?” The young man replied that the starfish could not get back to the water, so they would soon die, when the sun dried them out, unless he tossed them in the water.

The older man said, “Look at all these starfish! You are wasting your time. How can you possibly think that what you are doing will make any difference?” The young man quietly picked up another starfish, tossed it into the ocean, then turned and said, “Made a difference to that one.”

That story moves me. As we look at all the world’s troubles, we can each make a difference. Lindsay’s Legacy asks this question: “Who cares?” If you care, don’t be intimidated (like I was) by thinking that a mentor must serve as a tutor or a disciplinarian. Tutoring is permitted, but not required. Others provide discipline. All that a mentor really needs to do is to be there — to listen, to advise and to encourage a young person who really wants and needs you.

For caring adults, mentoring is ridiculously easy but enormously important. That is why I believe that, outside of family duties, mentoring is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. My only regret is that I did not start mentoring sooner. Avoid that regret. Male and female mentors are urgently needed for male and female students. Resolve to become a mentor now and begin reaping great rewards. Talk to a counselor at a school near you. Or contact me.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog. (If you want to contact Bill, send me an email and I will forward.

9 comments Add your comment


April 28th, 2012
2:53 pm

Agree. It’s very rewarding also for senior teachers/professors to mentor junior ones just starting out. Let them learn from your bad experiences!


April 28th, 2012
4:51 pm

I am very thankful for mentors, and it sounds like the writer is a fine one. Unfortunately, in my school we never have more than one or two (don’t think any this year) but I sure wish we did! We could use at least 150!

Some of us do this unofficially. I have several students, in grades higher than my school now, that I serve as an encourager, a supporter, an advocate, an “ice breaking ship”, and it is a thrill to watch them mature.

Northern School Parents

April 29th, 2012
3:51 pm

This is a beautiful post and a beautiful topic. I certainly appreciated it.
What is heartbreaking is that hardly any teachers have commented on it. Only Prof and Catlady have commented. It seems most teachers on this Get Schooled blog only want to complain and not get much done.
…but is sure is nice to see a positive post about a teacher making a positive difference and a sheer delight to see Prof and Catlady saying positive things.

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

April 29th, 2012
4:15 pm

My retired father has become a mentor for students, which has been an interesting experience for both of us. I come from a family from which no one has ever been a teacher, and there were certainly some eyebrows raised when I decided on education as a career. For years, I do not think my family ever really understood the difficult issues I was dealing with within the classroom and within the system. They would nod their heads, but their reaction was much like the rest of the general public – “Call the parents.” “Tell the principal.” “Don’t let them treat you like that.” “Just tell them the child is not ready for the next grade level.” “Don’t worry about teaching to the test, just do your job and it will be fine!” “If they don’t do the work, fail them!” Even worse was the underlying suggestion that I was too well educated for my career choice. That I wasting my talents, and that teaching couldn’t really be that hard.

Now that my father has actually experienced what goes on in a classroom, and worked with some troubled students, his tune has definitely shifted. It is with some amusement, that I sit back and listen to him carry on about the very same issues I have been discussing for two decades. His frustration with the system and the way in which good teachers are handcuffed by mandates and scripted lessons is evident in his determination to make things better, not only for the students he mentors, but also for their teachers. Live and learn, I guess.

I do wish we had more mentors willing to work with students. We especially need strong, male mentors, as many male students have no close, male role models in their lives, and end up emulating distant sport and music stars. One of my most troubled students this year previously had a mentor who made a big impact upon him. He constantly shares stories about wonderful things he was able to do with his mentor – things he would likely never have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Unfortunately, his mentor moved out of state, and we have been unable to find anyone else to take his place. I see the child drifting away, down a path that is likely to lead to significant problems ahead. I do my best, but he has little respect for women for reasons I will not elaborate upon. Mentors can have a great positive impact, both in terms of allowing the public a better glimpse of what is happening in schools, and in terms of making a positive impact on the lives of our youth.

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

April 29th, 2012
4:18 pm

@Prof “It’s very rewarding also for senior teachers/professors to mentor junior ones just starting out.”

Totally agree. And frankly, throughout my career, I have learned far more from older teachers with sound advice, than I ever did from those high paid “instructional coaches” foisted upon us.


April 29th, 2012
4:57 pm

I know of a principal who tried to start a program that would place students’ fathers as volunteer hall monitors throughout the building. The problem that we had was with the need for training and background checks. It would be so nice if one of our partners in education had agreed to cover these costs. Community volunteers from among our parents and grandparents, especially the fathers and grandfathers, have had a very positive impact in the past, in the limited roles available. We have cameras on the halls. I would love to see the impact on all the students that some of our parents could have. One grandfather in particular comes to mind. He’s in attendance at many functions and is well-known and liked. He is a retired IBM executive. The students enjoy conversing with him and showing off for him on the court. I can’t imagine his presence during the school day being anything but positive. It would be so nice for the children to have someone other than their teachers,( who grade them, who write referrals, etc., ) to look to for modeling of appropriate public, social interaction——and from whom to gain such ‘mentoring’.

former mentor

April 29th, 2012
9:06 pm

I participated in a mentoring program while in grad school over a decade ago, before I went to work in APS. I no longer work full time, but volunteer quite a bit in my kids’ school, though not as a mentor. There are a few parents I know who mentor and read with kids who need it, but it is not an organized group. For anyone who does participate in an organized group, how is it handled? Is there an umbrella group I could contact to see how to set one up? There was no screening or background checks that I recall when I did this, so I’m not sure how to proceed now. I still remember a 2nd grader I mentored; he wanted to read Harry Potter so badly (even though it was above his reading level), that we bumped our way through it. When it came out that no one at home would ever be reading to/with him, I got him a hand puppet so he’d have alwas have a reading buddy. I often wonder what happened to him and his brother & sister.


April 30th, 2012
2:26 am

I teach eighth grade English at a Dekalb County middle school that serves mostly immigrant students, most of whom do not have papers. They see no reason to keep trying if there are no prospects for their future. If there is no father at home for whatever reason, the boys, or “Jovenes,” are looking for someone else to keep them afloat. I absolutely love our boys from Mexico and Guatemala, who are looking for a brighter future. I will do all I can, with the boys’ mothers’ blessings, to serve. These boys, normally labeled as “troublemakers,” do really have hopes and dreams, though crushed by lack of expectations. These boys can make it; they are worth it. More later on mentoring…

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

April 30th, 2012
8:49 am


I agree.