Alejandro Luna is an ambassador teacher from Quito, Ecuador. He is in his second year with Participate Learning working as a high school Spanish teacher at Central Cabarrus High School in Concord, North Carolina. Read on about his experience with organizing a mentorship program for his students.
Building community through mentorship
When my high school students first heard that we were invited to organize a mentorship program with a neighboring middle school, they did not feel motivated at all. The program would entail having to take on an extra hour of work every Friday in order to help with the homework of someone else.
However, when we first met our new friends, there was an instant bond—we were all Hispanic and members of the same community. My students recognized them from church and soccer games.
They were offered a project through the mentorship program that would allow them to build up experience and a portfolio that would equate to an exam grade. They were excited to get involved, and yet what motivated them to volunteer at that point was only the fact that they did not have to sit in front of an exam for three hours.
Our group of mentees was quite unique—they came from different parts of the Hispanic world. They all varied in age, gender, interests, experiences, and needs. Likely, the only thing they had in common was the school and the need for academic support.
Our ultimate goal was to help them understand and execute their missing assignments, and we were doing a good job. Most, if not all, of our mentees had successfully improved their grades. Take the case of Alex, for example, who had an average of 40% before the program. In just a few weeks, he was able to improve his grades and keep an average of 85%.
However, when we evaluated our project and asked mentors and mentees their perspectives, they did not care a lot about getting high grades. They actually cared more about their relationships with each other. When a student did not show up on Friday, they would ask what happened and send their well-wishes before beginning work with another mentor.
I was able to use my Spanish language skills with native speakers in our community to communicate with them and hear their perspectives. Our mentees felt that they could relate to these older kids and that they could count on them inside and outside of school. They wanted to join our school, and they probably will, because they know they already have a friend there waiting for them.
Sharing personal experiences
There were stressful moments, like the time most of our mentees did not know their Power School accounts and we had to go around asking teachers individually for their assignments, and there were moments of relaxation and bonding. One of my students said, “Today my mentee did not have any pending assignments, so we just talked and played.”
Through talking with each other, we learned more about their needs, their struggles, and their dreams. Although we did not have any specific way to support them, we did realize how important it was for them to share what was going on in their heads and see that there are other kids who have gone through the same thing and are doing alright now.
Together, we built a support group that worked to share their experiences and expertise. I will never forget the frustration of a seventh-grade girl who had come to the United States a few months prior and was struggling with her English. She said, “Es que yo hablo el inglés muy machucao’ y mi profe no me entiende.”
I apologize for the translation attempt in advance—I am sure half of the wittiness will be lost. She tried to say that her English is too bruised and her teacher does not understand her. Little by little, everyone wanted to share what their own learning process of the language had been like to help her improve.
Small action with a big impact
Word of mouth can be powerful, and we received a second invitation from a local organization that works with immigrants. The organization teaches English to parents after work, and they were looking for volunteers to tutor their children. So, while parents were learning English, their children were being mentored by high school students, creating more opportunities for our school to make a visible change in our community.
The mentorship program positively contributed to the lives of my students and reminded them of how hard it is to be the new kid in town. They were able to reflect on their role in the community and realized that small actions, such as sharing sixty minutes a week with someone, can have a big impact and shape a life in a positive way. This seemingly small school project helped my students and me learn how to become leaders of our own community.