My Mentoring Journey
It has been a privilege to work in the field of youth mentoring since 1999. The opportunity to research youth development on an international scale, though with the key focus on youth mentoring itself, to read widely and to share ideas, thoughts and opinions on effective practices has been a tremendously positive experience. I have met some incredible people while running training courses and seminars and many committed youth development program staff involved in a variety of impressive programs. The Churchill Fellowship, which allowed me to visit youth mentoring programs in Canada and the USA in July 2006, has further underlined how important it is to stay abreast of all that is occurring in the field of youth mentoring, of networking with other like-minded people and I am continually being reminded of the invaluable role so many people have played in my life both as formal and informal mentors.
The Early Years
I was fortunate to have a number of teachers in primary (beginning in 1961) and secondary school, as well as some key sports coaches who mentored me during the formative years of my life. These were people who were prepared to spend time talking to me, listening to me, motivating and encouraging me to reach potential that they could see and I often could not. Most important, they inspired me as role models to follow in their footsteps and to enter the world of education. Reflecting on these experiences, I note that it was usually me who sought them out and no-one ever turned me away.
As a university student, resident in a school boarding hostel, I was given a group of 12 to 15 adolescent boys to mentor. This involved spending time with them one-to-one, looking at goal setting, encouraging them to become involved in sports and cultural activities and, as the relationships developed, discussing their more personal matters. I was young, naïve and idealistic, but the housemaster to whom I was reporting, mentored me in turn, allowed me to make mistakes and to learn from them, all the while preparing me for the world of teaching. Thus the seeds of mentoring, the promotion of the concept of the spirit of mentoring, were sown during my childhood and adolescent years. Most important, I was given first-hand experience of how young people, once they feel connected, safe and secure in a school environment, have a much greater chance of reaching their potential than those who do not experience such feelings.
For 15 years I took on a variety of roles in addition to being a classroom teacher. During these years I inevitably found myself interacting with groups of 12 to 15 adolescent students with whom I spent time. There was plenty of sports coaching, setting up and organizing youth symposia, managing boarding hostels, facilitating cultural activities and so on. The interaction with these students outside the formalities of the academic environment was where the real teaching often took place. How I wish I had had the mentoring knowledge I now have during those early years. How much more might I have contributed to the wellbeing of some of the students with whom I interacted. I was probably too prescriptive, too judgmental and lacking empathy far too often. If only I had spent more time getting to know X or Y better, perhaps he might have chosen a different path? While I have many regrets and know that I can not turn the clock back, I appreciate how reflecting on these experiences continues to help shape me as a person, an educator, a manager and a mentor.
Then the move to a school leadership position when I was able to work with staff, parents and students, to create visions and, as a community, to go after them. Throughout these eight challenging, yet memorable years, I had people who mentored me, some without even realizing that they were doing so. They would listen non-judgmentally while I off-loaded, cheered with me when I celebrated a breakthrough, a hugely positive moment or something as trivial to some, yet significant to me, as a recalcitrant young person making positive choices to change their behavior.
What I had learnt over the years from personal experiences, I was able to put into action, as all teaching staff took responsibility for mentoring (although we did not use that word in those days) a group of 10 to 15 students. Time was set aside each semester for one-to-one meetings between the students and their teacher-mentors during which they discussed goals, involvement in school activities and anything else pertinent to the relationship. Teacher-mentors also attended some fun training activities (not enough of those in retrospect) to remove the cobwebs of fear that they could not mentor effectively. We all learnt the importance of setting boundaries with our students, of knowing when to seek assistance from a colleague and the importance of confidentiality. Student leaders underwent leadership training that also promoted the concept of mentoring in the sense that they were there as servants of the other students, a concept that still does not sit well with some in the education field. Of course there were mistakes, high and low periods, disappointments and frustrations. We were all on a steep learning curve (school management, teaching staff, administrative staff and students) yet memorable was the fact that we had so few major discipline problems, most students were achieving so much more than they had ever thought possible and we were working in a community which had a special atmosphere which visitors could feel when they arrived, though it could never be accurately described. We learnt, too, that not everyone was suited to mentoring and that sometimes more professional help was needed in addition to the teacher-mentor, hence the importance of creating partnerships with other agencies or building a web of support around a young person. We also learnt that even the brightest high achievers appreciated the one-to-one relationship with a teacher-mentor.
Time and time again I was being taught how important this word relationship is during the journey through life. As staff assessments were introduced, another layer of mentoring was also introduced into the community. In one school the Peer Support Program broke down so many barriers between senior and junior students and built genuine long-lasting friendships. I became an instant convert!
During these years I began running Life Skills seminars and workshops and observed the positive impact these were having on young people’s lives, as fears were broken down, prejudices identified and challenged, teamwork encouraged and positive self-esteem was nurtured. Most important, we all came to appreciate how important a sense of humor is in this journey of life. Then we moved on to conflict resolution skills, key skills to have if meaningful relationships are to take place, and the 90s came to an end.
Youth Mentoring: South Africa to New Zealand
In 1999 I moved totally out of my comfort zone, immigrating with my family to New Zealand and spent the next seven years associated with not-for-profit Trusts involved in different ways with the development of young people.
Youth mentoring was becoming a “buzz phrase” in New Zealand, although programs had been operating in the USA especially for almost 100 years. Again, I was privileged to work with and alongside some exceptional people who helped shape my life in some significant ways. I entered this world of youth mentoring, studied it, researched it and immersed myself in it. After 23 years of teaching, I realized how much more I had to learn about young people, a humbling experience. However, far from being discouraged, my passion to encourage young people to reach their potential, the reason why I had chosen teaching as a profession so many years previously, was reinvigorated. I appreciated more and more the power of story-telling as one way to inspire young people. Friends and colleagues encouraged me to start writing, hence the emergence of The Spirit of Mentoring series in partnership with Essential Resources Ltd. and eventually the self-publication of my mentor training resource manual, The Spirit of Mentoring – a manual for adult volunteers, the culmination of seven years research, writing, rewriting and more rewriting. My mentors kept encouraging me, urging me on when I felt weary of battling the odds time and time again. This manual was updated in 2017 and its contents will be relevant for many years to come, as the focus is on how to build meaningful relationships with youth.
Listening to mentors and mentees sharing stories of their journeys will always inspire me, all the more so when I know I have contributed in such a small way through sowing some common sense mentoring seeds during a training program, a workshop or seminar or simply through a word of encouragement. I understand now what people mean when they talk about passing the mentoring baton to the next generation. It’s an awesome experience.
From these experiences I built my amateurish website, as I wanted to share material, resources and experiences with others working in the field. The work of Youth Empowerment Seminars, which I had begun in 1987 as a community service, also began to take on a new shape as the Twentieth Century drew to a close.
As I journeyed through the world of youth mentoring, trialing new ideas, exploring and adapting the effectiveness of the Elements of Effective Practice, I experienced a time of self-doubt. These thoughts led me to explore the Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship (which I was privileged to receive) to have the opportunity to rub shoulders with people and organizations considerably more experienced than I am and to talk to expert practitioners.
Reflections 2006 to 2023: Australia and returning to New Zealand
This Fellowship, undertaken in July 2006, was an important part of my personal development and I know that it will continue to impact me in unknown ways. I have learnt more about myself, the world of youth mentoring, the highs and lows of working in the not-for-profit sector and about young people in general.
I gained a renewed zest to work in the field that encourages young people to reach their potential and I am even more convinced of the importance for all teachers to experience spirit of mentoring seminars as a way to motivate and inspire them to continue the good work they are doing; when feeling unappreciated, simply to have the time to reflect on why they chose teaching as a career and to see the flame rekindled. I would dearly love to see all teacher trainees experience mentor training and have the experience of mentoring a young person from a high risk environment before they begin teaching. Had I had that experience in the 1970’s…
The world of technology continues to challenge the world of education, family structures and relationships. Indeed, the concentration span of young people seems to have decreased over the years, putting more and more pressure on teachers to be creative and innovative. This is such a wonderful time to focus on building meaningful relationships with students, perhaps returning to what some might think are old-fashioned values and virtues like integrity, positive peer pressure, loyalty, accountability, teamwork, responsibility, genuinely caring for others and so many more. We need to invest in our young people far more than we do at the moment.
Teachers are under pressure for so many reasons: new syllabi and methods of assessment which take up an inordinate amount of time; bureaucratic paper trails that rob teachers of the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with their students; economic circumstances forcing both parents to work and the impact that is having on young people and thus relationships with authority figures and between teachers and parents as well; the number of families that are not functioning effectively and the impact that this is having on young people who often feel unloved and rejected and so I could go on. These are youth issues in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. Indeed, it is likely that most countries are having to deal with students wagging school (truancy), inappropriate use of technology, substance abuse, inappropriate sexual activity, youth suicide, increased youth crime and the disintegration of families and a foster care system that needs a major overhaul. Standing in the gap could be the volunteer adult mentors, those committed men and women who genuinely want to make a difference by moving alongside a young person for a year. Effective mentoring of young people could see more of them also acquiring more employability skills from these relationships.
With these thoughts in mind, I believe one of the most significant weaknesses of youth mentoring is the lack of adequate training and preparation of mentors. A variety of reasons will be placed before the reader as a counter to this statement, but I have observed how even the seemingly most qualified mentors have enjoyed and benefited from the opportunity for some self-reflection, perhaps a polishing of skills that might have lain dormant for a while and the opportunity to interact over a period of time with like-minded people. Perhaps my education training and personal mentoring experiences have also led me to labor the importance of achieving a positive connection with a young person for, without a well-structured training program, many mentors could easily become prescriptive in their approach to the mentoring relationship without realizing the error of their pathways.
I was excited as I traveled through the USA to hear a number of people saying that they think Peer Mentoring is going to become more and more important in the education sector, as older students are trained to move alongside younger students as the wise guides in structured programs. If we can continue to sow the seeds of mentoring among our young people, we will, indeed, rediscover the importance of meaningful relationships during the life journey and be better equipped ourselves to role model what this means.
I am grateful to the 1000 or so students who have interacted with me over the years, who have taught me so much about the meaning of relationship building and who continue to teach, humble and inspire me to seek new opportunities to encourage more young people to reach their potential.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship was a timely and in many ways challenging and affirming experience. I have also been continually reminded of the power of informal mentoring, hence my ongoing desire to spread the message about the spirit of mentoring in as many ways as possible.
Moving to Australia in September 2006 opened so many new opportunities and possibilities. Launching the school-based GR8 MATES youth mentoring program in 2007 was challenging, encouraging, exciting and potentially a program that could impact many, many young lives. The trial programs exceeded my expectations and once again affirmed for me that, when mentors are adequately trained, supported and supervised, young lives can be changed for the better.
During these years I wrote Letter 2 a Teen: Becoming the Best I can Be
Other books encouraging the spirit of mentoring were also published.
In 2009 I decided to return to the school environment and accepted a 5 year contract as an Associate Head at an Independent School north of Brisbane, my official title being the Executive Director of Faith and Community (I signed a new 5 year contract at the end of 2013). The job entailed developing the Pastoral Care Program for the school of 1500 pre-school to Year 12 students, assisting with the development of the leadership program, supervising ten Heads of House and overseeing the growth of the Christian ethos at the school and a whole lot more. In a way it was an opportunity to bring together all the experiences I have gained over the years and make a positive contribution to the school community and, perhaps, beyond. The highlight was facilitating the introduction of a Vertical Tutoring System – the first of this type in Australia from what we could gather shortly before my retirement in March 2017.
I have written a number of books, all aimed at encouraging those working with youth or taking time out to reflect on servant leadership.
In March 2023 I was invited to present a paper at the 6th International Academic Conference on Research in Social Sciences at Oxford University. The title of my presentation: CHOICES: Encouraging Youth to Achieve Greatness.
The journey continues now that I am retired and have moved back to New Zealand. I remain inspired by these words from scripture which were brought to my attention in the early 1990s and which have, in a strange way, motivated and inspired me to keep on keeping on:
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”*
– Isaiah 40: 28 – 31
* The words in bold are the ones given to me and which I am still trying to fully understand why, possibly linked to three surprise book contracts all in the same year, 2020? 🙂