In my first article for Education Reimagined, I reported an extremely significant finding from Gallup’s “Great Jobs, Great Lives” study. Students were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and cultivate a sense of well-being later in life if they had two particular experiences while in school:
- Received one-on-one attention from an adult (mentor or professor) who encouraged the pursuit of individual goals and dreams; and
- Applied learning to long-term school projects and real-world internships.
These findings concur with a new concept I call Project Based Mentoring™, which brings two different generations and (potentially) culturally diverse people together around something to “do.” An experienced professional mentors a student one-on-one within the framework of a long-term project, bringing vast experience and practical knowledge to a student’s hypothetical concept.
Within this design, the student is the idea generator—responsible for the design of the activity and its execution. Together, the student and mentor develop a master plan, work through real-world obstacles, prepare for an oral defense, and calculate the project’s real-world impact. With multiple touchpoints along this learning journey, the student receives guidance and collaboration that mimics workplace scenarios. In the process, a new kind of relationship develops that leaves a door open to new experiential learning, as well as the potential for future endorsements, internships, apprenticeships, or job opportunities.
The beauty of this idea is that the Project is owned by the student, resides easily within the wheelhouse of a mentor’s knowledge, creates synergy between the business and academic sectors, and functions as a logical catalyst in an intergenerational relationship.
The following suggested outline of activities is based on the design of Project Based Mentoring™ but can also be used as a general framework to fit within programs you may have already developed in your community. Consider these next steps to further deepen your partnerships with community businesses.
It is understandable for schools to question designating resources toward a mentoring partnership. After all, it’s new, and there may never before have been a line-item in the budget for something like this. I feel confident in unabashedly saying there needs to be. With the eleven essential elements below, I want to demonstrate why it’s worth the relatively small investment compared to the tremendous return that will result.
1. Start Small
Pick one or two educators who might already include projects in their class curriculum, i.e. Social Media Marketing (a Blog Project assignment), Business (a Business Plan project), Technology (an App Development project). Discuss the idea of welcoming a handful of members from the business community as mentors in these select fields. You will need one designee who will act as your school’s community liaison. This could be a part-time role to start your mentorship initiative, with the promise that the designee will be given proper support. This person’s role might include business courtship, background checks, mentor training and preparation, classroom placement, teacher support, and follow-up communications.
2. Ask the Corporation for Financial Assistance
When we explored pitching community businesses, we discussed the possibility of requesting financial assistance from the corporation. I’ve witnessed corporate philanthropic programs and individual mentors each underwrite such program elements as: project research, field trip expenses, end-of-year student awards, and teacher stipends. They may also be willing to cover the administrative costs for the overall mentoring program.
3. Create Clear Rules of Engagement and Expectations
It is always best to be forthright about the expectations you have of the partnership. It is suggested to review parameters and define them from the beginning. What’s the class schedule? What’s the commitment of understanding for a semester or full year? How many in-person visits will the mentor and student have on a monthly basis? What is the best way to communicate between the student, mentor, and school liaison? How many students will be mentored by the company? What are your snow day cancellation procedures? What’s the fallback plan if the placement goes awry?
4. Adequate Time for Training
You should never assume corporate mentors already know how to mentor students. There is a culture gap between the business community and the 21st-century school environment. This gap will become less significant as these partnerships become more commonplace throughout your community, but for now, it shouldn’t be ignored. Training prepares the mentor for this cultural shift and presents ideas for best practices and preparation for working with teachers and one-on-one with students. I often suggest August or January for training before the semester begins. A mentor who knows what she’s expected to do is a happy mentor.
5. Mentor Placement: Consider Personality, Experience, and Geography
Not every mentor is a match for every group or individual. And, several mentor scenarios can be at play depending on your priorities, such as: mentor is placed in the classroom and works under the tutelage of a teacher; or an afterschool program working through a non-profit; or periodically bringing the student to the mentor’s place of work; or a blend of face-to-face time combined with online coaching.
Consider the age and needs of the students. Consider the mentor’s unique personality. Question if there is compatibility with the teacher, and more importantly, with the student. Consider the business proximity to the school. And, think about the alignment of your student’s interests with the mentor’s experiences.
6. Plan for Touchpoints
Build time for check-ins between teacher, mentor, and liaison. This can be a simple call or email. Mentors are often excited to share their experiences and crave feedback. This is a time to learn of any issues that have arisen or hear about progress. Also, pay attention to what the students are saying outside of the mentoring sessions. Keep all parties informed so the path forward is clearly understood.
7. Plan at Least One (Extraneous) Field trip
If the student hasn’t already had the opportunity to work with their mentor within the mentor’s work environment, suggest to the mentor and their employer that this be arranged. The hands-on experience will further introduce students to the business concepts and new methodologies shared by the mentor. If your student has already been working within the mentor’s work environment, are there locations in the city that could further demonstrate certain lessons? How might the experience benefit both the student and the mentor? These should be planned with all parties involved, allowing students to look forward to further connecting the dots between learning and doing.
8. Incorporate Oral Presentations
One critical aspect to is a formal oral presentation. Once students have chosen a project and have implemented their plans, they should have the ability to communicate their work standing before a public audience and offering a succinct synopsis of their project’s findings. This experience cements the project as an important accomplishment, builds confidence, and develops one of the most in-demand skills for the 21st-century workplace. For the presentation, you might use some guiding questions: What is the problem you are addressing and why did you choose it? What is your objective? Describe your implementation plan. What obstacles did you face? What was the real-world impact? When the students present, invite mentors, associates, teachers, parents, and other relevant community members to provide feedback from various lenses.
9. Write Letters of Appreciation
Writing a thank you note is pivotal in one’s career path, as it demonstrates courtesy, respect, and a level of intentionality. Not to mention, it can also keep important doors open long into the future. There is no greater gift than sharing time and knowledge, and it’s important for students to recognize and reflect on receiving this gift. A book of classroom letters presented to a company or individual at year’s end also strengthens the bond between the school and the business.
10. Plan An Acknowledgement Event
Plan a small event for mentors and students to share stories. Have the school formally thank the mentors and corporations. Hand out awards to students who showed notable progress or skill sets. Take photos. Invite city leaders. Include the media!
11. Review, and Repeat
Last but not least, make sure you set aside time to review the year’s activities after a successful semester. What improvements can each party offer? What can be added to the following semester’s cycle? What additional classes can be added to the mentor initiative? What else can be done to increase student engagement? What other cohorts and/or corporations might be worthy expansions during the next school year?
How is Mentorship a Win-Win?
After many years of developing a mentor model and iterating along the way, I’ve seen it all—in every permutation. I’ve seen the incredible student outcomes from my very own mentees—some still in touch 18 years later; I’ve witnessed the relationships forged by countless other mentor-mentee relationships; I’ve seen mentors return year after year and bring new associates to participate; I’ve observed the indelible bonds between a teacher and her company team; and I’ve noted the county, regional, and state authorities who praise this work.
Through all of my research and interviews, the following highlights how Project Based Mentoring™ is a win-win relationship from each constituent’s point of view.
Why is the partnership a win for the corporation?
- The HR department views mentoring as a form of management training—mentors gain leadership proficiencies, management skills, confidence, and a new sense of responsibility for educating the next generation.
- The company and employees benefit from the good will this partnership creates in the community.
- For many organizations, the Corporate Social Responsibility department now has a key role in supporting the Human Resources department. Through mentoring, CSR builds a pipeline of skilled applicants and generates greater interest in STEM studies.
- Millennials prefer to work at companies that are visibly doing something good. A corporation that builds community liaisons and assists local institutions will attract more Millennial job applicants.
- The corporation’s retirees become ambassadors for the company. Most corporate retirees find the transition to a life without a career to be daunting. By volunteering in their field of knowledge, retirees become the corporation’s accomplished ambassadors. They enjoy community engagement and are respected. They are sharing their knowledge with the next generation.
Why is the partnership a win for the school?
- The educators can see students connecting the dots from book learning to real-world application.
- The school can see a pathway from their mentorship program to new opportunities for their students: endorsements, internships, apprenticeships, and jobs.
- Educators enjoy a broadened horizon with new partnerships, as they expand their own world view and understanding of the resources available for their students in the community.
- Greater community support infiltrates education decision makers and elected officials.
- Depending on the kind of school, a deepened engagement is fostered with donors, alumni, or community businesses.
Why is the partnership a win for students?
- Students are introduced to long-term projects, master planning, and an oral defense of projects. New skill sets, new language, and a new professional demeanor accompany these outcomes.
- Students connect dots between their education and the real world, which results in increased motivation and new interest in scholastic success.
- Students learn to collaborate in an intergenerational relationship.
- Students learn the value of grit, confidence, and team work within an industry sector.
- Students can add a real-world project experience to their resumes and their college applications.
Students enjoy increased internship opportunities and obtain stronger skill sets for a corporate career or endorsements for their future work life.
Why is the partnership a win for the city?
- Cities benefit from higher-trained employees.
- More employment increases community-wide economic development and revenue generation.
- New industries consider relocation to the city because youth are educated to work-ready standards.
- Cities see job growth and property value growth.
- Cities benefit from the economic development witnessed by schools and corporations.
It’s hard to believe that a short-term, limited connection like mentorship can make much of a difference in a student’s adventure toward maturation. But, most of us still remember that visitor who came by the house; that stranger who made the important, unexpected observation; or the individual who functioned as sort of ambassador from a world that was still very far away. If that stranger managed to speak to our own place of possibility, an inner dialogue began and continued long after the memorable outsider moved on.
I am certain of this: students want to find ways to connect to a world that they suspect is different from either school or home. They need to feel connected to a world that looks complex and incoherent. Real-world projects coupled with a mentor’s guidance can introduce a brand new learning pathway that reenergizes disengaged youth.
To these ends, this is but a small investment for an enormous return.
I believe that Project Based Mentoring™ can change a student’s trajectory—that educators and businesses together can transition concepts of mentorship from simply an act of charity, toward being an educational necessity. Consider supporting an infrastructure and training that would welcome this new partnership and better prepare our youth through innovation, projects, and skills that are applicable to the 21st-century job market.