Making Mentoring Matter

Maximizing benefit to protégé and mentor.

Posted Dec 17, 2017

Wikimedia, Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain

Too many bright, motivated people don’t live up to their potential. Sometimes, a mental health professional may be required but other times, a caring mentor may do. For example, if the person could use better social skills, advising on school, coaching on time management, or simply feels lonely, different from most people.

We typically think of mentoring as older guiding younger but even seniors can benefit from mentoring. But the example I’ll use in this article is a widely under-served group: children with excellent reasoning ability who attend a school with primarily lower-middle-class children. In such schools, programs for high-potential children often have been eviscerated yet the parents are often insufficiently wealthy or knowledgeable to help their kids live up to their potential. Thus, mentoring such students may yield particular benefit.

Finding your protégé

Identify one or more target schools, both in terms of socioeconomics and best-suited age: Some mentors will do better with elementary school kids, others with high schoolers, others with college or graduate students.

Email a counselor or even the principal or dean at one or more on-target schools. If you email only one, you may not get a response let alone a well-suited protégé. You probably need to go the extra mile to reassure school and parent that you’re to be trusted. To that end, your email needs be a thoughtful explanation of why you’re wanting to mentor, why you’d be good at it, and why you can be trusted  You might include a few references. Even if you do all that, it’s premature to ask to be referred to a protégé. Instead, offer to come in for an interview. Here’s a sample such email,

Dear Ms. Smith,

I work in the human resources department of Ace Plastics here in town and am looking to do some volunteer work. As I reflect on how I might particularly make a difference, I’ve decided to see if there was an appropriate elementary school child I might mentor. When I was a child, I was considered bright but disorganized and my social skills weren’t great, so I could have profited from a mentor. My own children and their friends consider me a good mentor. So now, as my kids are older, I’m motivated to mentor another young person, perhaps doing as little as occasionally chatting on the phone, or getting together regularly, perhaps just to chat or to, for example, go to a museum, movie, or ball game.

I attach three references and would welcome the opportunity to sit down with you so you can further vet me and decide if one of your school’s students might benefit from my mentorship. I’d also be pleased to meet with the child’s parents so they can decide whether they’d like me to try it.

Thanks for considering this,

Marty Nemko

First meeting

If it’s a child, the first meeting should probably be with the parent present. To get a sense of the person and his or her needs, you might start with, “Want to tell me a little about yourself?” If the person finds that question too broad, you might give choices, for example, “Want to tell me a little about what you’re interested in or about school or your family?”

Then, your core job is to listen—both to the words and for the feeling underneath. Take only as much control of the conversation as needed to keep it going. Also be sensitive to when the person has had enough, at least for the day. At the end, if you’d like to continue the relationship, ask if he or she would like to get together again (and, if so, in-person, by phone, or Skype) to do an activity or just to talk.

After the initial meeting, the relationship’s path can vary widely and discussing those goes beyond the scope of what can be explored in a brief article. It can,  however, be said that one-on-one mentoring is among the more likely ways to benefit giver, receiver, and society.