HENDERSON, Tenn. — Moments before their mentoring session was set to begin, Taleshia Driver and Dr. Leah Shull paused and smiled after noticing they were wearing matching outfits.
“We didn’t plan this,” Shull said of her maroon sweater and Taleshia’s maroon shirt.
It may not have been planned, but the color coordination illustrated how in sync the two have been throughout the 2021-22 school year at Chester County Junior High School in Henderson, Tennessee.
“She is always there for me,” Taleshia said.
Shull is an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at CCJHS. Taleshia is an eighth-grade student. The two have known each other since 2015, when Shull was a kindergarten teacher and had Taleshia’s younger sister, Jayla, in her class.
But their relationship has grown significantly over the past eight months, with Shull serving as Taleshia’s mentor as part of the school’s mentoring program with Summit Learning. The two have weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions that provide them the space to discuss topics ranging from Taleshia’s academic goals to her thoughts and feelings about her life outside of school.
Early on, it was evident that their mentor-mentee relationship was strong and that has led to often-daily interactions at school that has empowered them both in different ways.
For Taleshia, the connection she’s formed with Shull has allowed her to confidently navigate her eighth-grade year because she knows she’s not alone.
“During mentoring, you create that bond,” Taleshia said. “It’s amazing to always have someone you can trust and can go talk to about your day. They’re always there to help and give good advice.”
For Shull, the ability to make a noticeable impact on individual students such as Taleshia reminds her why she wanted to become a teacher. Shull gets emotional when she thinks back to her early years as an educator and of the many students she felt she wasn’t able to reach without a mentoring structure.
“A lot of kids felt left out, didn’t know where they fit in,” Shull said. “With mentoring, we’ve really changed that. Everybody has a place to belong. Everyone has a group of people who are going to notice when they’re not there or when they’re having a bad day.
“Just being noticed is a big deal and it’s changed the way they see coming to school and the way we see our job as teachers.”
Shull and Taleshia start each mentoring session with a “high” and “low” of the week, which lets Taleshia choose the direction of topics on her mind. It also lets their conversation become more authentic before they move onto individual progress checks on Taleshia’s academic goals.
At one point during a recent session, Taleshia expressed frustration about one of her classes and Shull was able to quickly get her mentee to view the situation differently by referencing the poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In the poem, six blind men create six unique versions of an elephant based on their limited experience with the animal.
“What is the lesson we can learn from that poem? That sometimes our perceptions of things are not accurate,” Shull said to Taleshia. “I’m not saying that what you said is not possible. But it’s always good to remember that sometimes we don’t have the whole story.”
Hearing that, Taleshia nodded attentively and calmly moved on to update Shull on a different project.
“The communication with us is so easy, the conversation just flows,” Taleshia said after their mentoring session ended. “She really is always there to help you through either personal or academic things, and show her experience. She’s just the best and keeps me excited about school.”
Taleshia’s excitement for school is evident when she speaks to Shull about potential colleges she’d like to attend despite not starting high school until this fall. Knowing that Taleshia is thriving academically this year, Shull has encouraged these long-term goals and even discussed potential scholarship opportunities that may exist down the road.
“I want her to be thinking about how to handle that when the time comes,” Shull said.
At the moment, Taleshia’s career aspiration is to become a journalist, which has her researching colleges with a strong journalism program. She is also interested in learning more about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), and is thankful she has Shull as a sounding board for her many questions and passions.
“I want to become a news anchor so people can actually hear my voice and see my face so I can explain what the issues are and help people feel supported and heard,” Taleshia said. “Everybody’s voice should be heard in one way or another.”
Taleshia enjoys talking about real world issues with her peers and trying to find common ground. She’s eager to learn as much as she can about the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and is passionate about bringing more positive change for fellow Black women through her actions with others.
“There may be people with different views, but to me we are one big community here,” Taleshia said. “It’s not about just one person, but one person that can be a part of a larger community and help people realize the importance of certain things. I like sharing what I believe in and I like to hear what other people have to say and what they believe in. That’s really important to me.”
When reflecting on the past year, Shull said the biggest change she’s seen in Taleshia is how much more adept she’s become in managing her relationships with other students. Shull has proudly noticed how Taleshia maturely controls her reactions with peers and helps create a positive culture within the school’s community.
“She’s so great and has so much motivation, just intrinsic motivation really,” Shull said. “We’ve been talking more about a lot of topics lately and that’s why I’m always excited to speak to her. I look forward to mentoring more than anything.”
In a few months, Taleshia won’t be far away physically—Chester County High School is only one mile away from CCJHS on the same E. Main St. in Henderson—but she will miss not having a trusted mentor such as Shull in the same building.
“Our bond is the real deal,” Taleshia said. “It’s going to be sad to leave here and not have her to talk to every day. I won’t have a mentor to go to, but we’ll keep in touch for sure. I’ll email her, I’ll visit. I feel like I can always have her support.
“She’ll always be a part of my life.”