How my students taught me ten key mentoring skills – a true story

How my students taught me ten key mentoring skills – a true story

What is the greatest life lesson a young person has taught you? Can you remember the actual time and place where that occurred?

I was thinking about this recently as I continued my research for my new mentoring book due out later this year: Mentoring Minutes: 320 Daily messages to inspire anyone working with youth. The book is an updated version of my short series of free podcast  episodes developed to encourage anyone mentoring youth, after a helpful challenge and suggestion from Patrick, one of my past students.

As I paged through scrap books and files of letters and thank you cards over a cup of coffee on the deck, I began to appreciate how much my interactions with students I taught or coached over forty-three years had shaped my personality.

Paolo and Iain probably have no idea how their brief conversations with me transformed my life and made my interactions with other students more meaningful. Are you teachable? These two young men sowed the seeds of the spirit of mentoring in my life early in my teaching career. Let me explain.

The ten most important life lessons my students taught me

There will be more than ten life lessons my students taught me over the years. However, these are the most important and, as I reflected on them, I came to appreciate how important these are for anyone who invests their time and energy to mentor youth.

1. Be authentic. Sixteen-year-old Paolo was my first team hockey captain in the late 1970’s. After a practice we stood on the side of the field chatting. I rested one foot on a short picket fence. “Sir, we don’t know whether you are being serious or not,” Paolo said to me. At the time I had a strange, cynical sense of humor. I realized, on reflection, that it had become a defensive mechanism I had created while I was recovering from cancer as a teenager.

Paolo’s statement hit me between the eyes. I apologized for the added confusion I was causing young lives whose brains were experiencing significant development. The journey to be true to myself began that day and continues all these years later.

A trustworthy, humble person of integrity can significantly and positively impact thousands of young lives.

2. Be empathetic. I have no idea how many times a young person has asked me if I was listening to them – not simply hearing them, actually listening to their opinions, ideas, dreams and feelings. These young people taught me how important it was to make every effort to walk in their shoes for a while, and sometimes to feel the blisters (the depth of their pain).

As I developed my communication skills, I learnt how to look behind the mask and communicate at a deeper level.

3. Know your subject. Every student knows when a teacher has not prepared a lesson. Students are incredibly perceptive. I prided myself on the depth of my lesson preparation, and was always quick to acknowledge if I did not know the answer to a question. The answer would be found, either in collaboration with the students, or before our next lesson.

Youth who risk developing meaningful relationships with adults, often seek more knowledge and wish to tap into the wisdom of someone they admire and respect. My students encouraged me to write a book which has been shared with many over the years: Letter 2 a Teen – Become the Best I can be.

4. Be respectful. My students continually taught me the importance of respecting them as unique individuals with their own gifts and talents. This included a genuine respect for their ideas and opinions, as well as respect for the specific challenges they might have been dealing with at any particular time. They sincerely appreciated having me as a non-judgmental cheerleader in their lives as this respect was developed.

5. Have a sense of humor. Students love a teacher who has a great sense of humor and can laugh at themselves, as students will inevitably play pranks on their teachers to test them. I have always had a great sense of humor – one of my strengths. My students helped refine and shape my sense of humor (thank you, Paolo) and, often through our interactions, reminded me that I needed to remember what life was like when I was a teenager and what amused my child-like mind at the time. In turn, as I modeled a sense of humor, I was able to coach students how to laugh at themselves, such an important life skill.

6. Acknowledge effort above performance.  There were many times students could show me all the work they had done, even when their final assessment might have not made the grade. They taught me how important it was to affirm their efforts. This strategy inevitably would lead to a lift in their performance. I also learnt to speak to the potential of a student who might not be seeing that potential for any number of reasons at the time.

7. Be fair. Every teacher will probably experience accusations from students that they favor some students over others. My students challenged me about this early in my career. Thereafter, I automatically became the champion of the underdog, probably because of my personal challenges as a teenager and how I learnt to deal with the impact of that experience on my life, and did my best never to have favorites.

Students continually reminded me of the importance of being fair at all times and how much they valued this – a great life lesson, as often the discussion would move to a chat about how to resolve conflicts positively, yet another wonderful life lesson for us all.

8. Be on time. Students seldom rush to find their teacher when the latter is late for class, yet they appreciate a teacher who is either punctual or standing at the door to welcome them to the new class. There were two life lessons my students taught me about the effective management of time.

Firstly, they raised their level of academic performance when I returned work promptly, efficiently and commented constructively on their effort. My comment was personal, in that it was addressed directly to the student using their first name.

Secondly, they respected and valued my investment in their lives when I showed my care and compassion and arranged extra time to meet with them outside of the normal class time. Our collaborative life lesson involved learning how and when to apologize – when I was late or missed a deadline. This, in turn, became a life lesson about how and when to be vulnerable.

9. Play to win. I have always been a competitive person who does not like to lose. Over the years students taught me how to lose graciously, while never accepting a half-hearted effort. Discussions would focus on the importance of every choice we make, and the development of teamwork, courage and perseverance – my teaching and coaching skills were sharpened by these positive interactions.

10. Whose are you? What are the foundations and values you model to youth? In the late 1980’s eighteen-year-old Iain told me that I ‘needed’ to attend a talk by the evangelist John Stott. I had studied the major faiths at university and felt that my faith journey was in a good place. Iain clearly believed my faith report card only read: “Can do better!”

I had studied John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, when I prepared for my faith commitment as a teenager. So, my wife and I traveled the forty minutes journey to hear John Stott speak – a life-changing experience for two reasons. Firstly, I was miraculously healed of a troublesome knee injury which had bothered me for many months – yet another ‘God’-incidence in my life! Secondly, my faith moved to a deeper level that night. This is difficult to explain as I remain a fallible person who makes many mistakes.

I began to look at life and the challenges of life with more optimism and through a consistently different faith lens. I developed one of my life mantras: ‘There is a solution to every problem!” My values were clarified, an important milestone before I became a school principal, and I began to share more messages of hope with the students with whom I interacted. At appropriate times I also shared my faith journey.

Iain’s encouragement helped to to answer one of the most important life questions everyone faces: Whose are you? This culminated in my most recent book, my legacy to my family, 7 Key Qualities of Effective Teachers – Encouragement for Christian Educators.

Concluding thoughts

My interactions with my students fine-tuned my leadership skills and remain a continual reminder that my life purpose is to serve others no matter what the personal cost might be. Challenging, for sure, though immensely rewarding and satisfying.

I celebrate all the students who have welcomed me into their lives and taught me so much!

How about you? What five life lessons have your interactions with youth taught you?

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be using their God-given talents. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Facebook or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website  Robin’s free Mentoring Minutes daily podcasts (each podcast between 2 and 4 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available hereAbout 45 blogs have been converted to short video clips, all of which are linked to encouraging youth to reach their potential. These are available on YouTube