Many ways to be a mentor

Many ways to be a mentor

More than wins or losses, Erika Etchison’s favorite part about being a basketball coach was watching the individual growth of each of her players.

Etchison began each season learning about her players and working with them to set goals that they would try to achieve by the final game.

“We would reflect on those goals each week during practices, asking them individually about their progress to meeting their goals and if there was anything we needed to change?” Etchison said. “It was so rewarding to be a part of each of their successes throughout the season.”

No longer a coach, Etchison still brings a mentor mindset to her role as principal at Achieve Charter School of Paradise in California. Etchison knows how vital it is for each of her students to have a trusted adult in the building to help them grow in all aspects of their lives.

“At Achieve, relationships and trust and community are the top priorities to us all the time,” Etchison said. “We obviously want the kids to learn and grow, but I don’t think that happens until you have trust and relationships in the community.”

Achieve Charter School Paradise
Achieve Charter School Paradise

Etchison is a strong believer in mentoring and its role in developing the whole student throughout their education journey. She said mentoring has helped students become more engaged in their learning and display more focus, curiosity, and purpose.

Etchison has also seen the powerful impact that mentoring has had on both students and teachers in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy.

This fall marks the five-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, which spread across the rural mountain town of Paradise and became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. A large majority of students and staff at Achieve Charter, including Etchison, lost their homes in the fire and the school relocated 15 miles west to temporary classrooms in Chico.

Through it all, students and teachers stayed connected through regular one-on-one chats that touched on a variety of real-world topics.

“The students needed that connection with us just as much as we needed that connection with them,” Etchison said.

Achieve Charter’s community not only stayed connected in the aftermath of the fire, but it eventually grew to two permanent campuses. Achieve Charter School of Chico serves grades K-8 and Achieve of Paradise serves grades K-6.

Steven Wright, principal at Achieve of Chico, said teachers have used mentoring as an avenue to display vulnerability and help students realize they are all connected. Wright said authenticity also helps students form a sense of belonging.

“Our students know the struggles we’re going through,” Wright said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Let’s all share a current thing we’re going through.’ And sometimes it’s, ‘Hey, here’s one thing that’s related to what you’re going through that I’m going through as an adult.’

“We just try to tell them about life. We all go through it together.”

“The students needed that connection with us just as much as we needed that connection with them.”

Achieve Charter isn’t alone in prioritizing teacher-student connections, as evidenced by the Gradient Learning Poll on the impact of mentoring.

Ninety-five percent of teachers agreed that every student can benefit from a mentor and 88 percent said one-on-one mentoring provides value to their students. The survey also found that 82 percent of teachers said mentoring time with their students results in positive changes in their academic performance, and 83 percent believe that mentoring is helping students learn to succeed on their own.

Luke Kelsey, principal at Bear Lake High School in Idaho, said mentoring can take on several forms in a variety of ways during the course of a school year. It doesn’t simply have to be a dedicated one-on-one meeting between a teacher and a student where the teacher is asking a lot of questions.

Principal Luke Kelsey and a Bear Lake student
Principal Luke Kelsey and a Bear Lake student

“There are many ways to mentor,” Kelsey said. “For us, it’s a lot of listening. We’re not trying to take over the conversation and say, ‘This is what you should be doing.’ We like to solve problems, but we also sometimes need to just sit there and listen. It’s important to be a good ear for the kids.”

Kelsey’s school has dedicated mentors for each of their students that stay with them throughout their four years at Bear Lake High School. That allows relationships to evolve in profound ways, and often results in an emotional moment at high school graduation when the mentor helps send their mentee off into the real world.

“It’s not always roses all the time in high school, and can be a struggle at times,” Kelsey said, “but it’s a good struggle that the students don’t have to work through alone. They have somebody with them every step of the way.”