Grants in Action:  Peer Mentoring Program

Thanks to a grant from the Foundation, English teacher Abbie Levine launched a new Peer Mentoring program at Tam this fall that’s already changing the way its participants perceive and interact with their peers.

Peer Mentoring is an elective class for juniors and seniors that meets during seventh period. Participants learn tutoring and mentoring skills that they use to work one-on-one with a freshman or sophomore identified by Tam staff as needing academic and/or social support. The program’s goals are to help mentees improve in three critical areas: organizational skills, self-confidence, and self-advocacy.

Skye Lee, Ilaria Lobo, and Kendall Hiti enjoy the Peer Mentoring ropes course challenge

Skye Lee, Ilaria Lobo, and Kendall Hiti enjoy the Peer Mentoring ropes course

The idea grew out Levine’s experience with Link Crew, which also seeks to build community by helping students get to know one another.   “I love the diversity at Tam,” she says, “and I love any opportunity to help students of different backgrounds build connections.” Link Crew is not a class, however, and Levine wanted a more institutionalized approach to peer mentoring.

In the Peer Mentoring classroom, twenty upper class students spent the first month of the school year learning tutoring and mentoring techniques from Ms. Levine and two outside consultants. Taylor Epstein, a teen peer mentoring specialist, counseled them on building relationships and trust building, while locally-based Tutor Corps gave them academic tutoring skills. They also learned about confidentiality requirements and the mandatory reporting rules that require them to report instances of drug abuse, sexual abuse, or self harm.

Meanwhile, mentees were identified by teachers and counselors. Candidates were students struggling with organizational skills and class participation, or with social isolation. “The kid who sits in the back of the class, who is withdrawn and doesn’t talk to his peers, and isn’t keeping up academically is the kind of kid we want to help,” Levine says.   Participation is voluntary, but almost all students invited to join the program accepted.

Once they were paired with a mentor, the process of trust building began. It might involve the mentor asking questions, such as what the student would be doing if he weren’t in school at that moment, and modeling openness by answering the question herself. It also involves traditional academic tutoring, like talking about homework and specific academic concepts. There are also ongoing group activities, such as a ropes course, that aim to unify the entire mentor/mentee group.

Levine has been “thrilled” by how the class is working so far. “One girl came in painfully shy, and it’s lovely to see her sitting here chatting away with her mentor. Her entire body language is different,” she says. “Another student misses class too much, and his mentor follows up to ask why he wasn’t in class. He keeps coming for his meetings, and we can all see how much it means to him that someone cares enough to check up on him.”

Feedback from other teachers has been positive. Levine has heard from several that a formerly withdrawn student is raising her hand more, or that a student who was falling behind is turning his homework in on time.

She’s also seeing how the program influences the mentors. “I have been impressed to see their growing understanding of differences among people, and how to build trust with and support people who are struggling so that they can be happier people.”

Peer mentor Hannah Goldman says the program has helped her develop communication and leadership skills, and “make a difference in the life of my mentee.” It’s a relationship in which “everyone wins,” she says.

Next year, Levine hopes to double the size of the program. The need is there, but whether she can meet it depends on how many qualified mentors she can find. The program is an elective, but not everyone who signs up will be accepted. A selection process that includes a short application followed by an interview with Ms. Levine aims to identify qualified students. “We’re looking for students who are respectful, take initiative, are responsible for their actions, are comfortable in one-on-one situations, and who are compassionate and want to help others,” she notes.

Interested students should pick up an application form from Ms. Levine.