By John Wetenkamp, Program Manager at City Year Denver
City Year is, by definition and by practice, a mentorship program ("and that's good!"). As a self-diagnosed meta-idealist, I recently found myself wondering what mentoring is, and wondered if City Year has ever asked itself that same question.
We constantly use the word "mentor"—in job descriptions, and real-life, on-the-ground, data-driven narratives—when discussing the service we provide. We have seen and heard countless stories of students who just need a nudge, an influential beacon who can offer them guidance and support, in order to visualize and eventually actualize their true potential.
We train City Year AmeriCorps members on building positive relationships during learning and development days. We participate in no-nonsense nurturing trainings and other socially & emotionally-informed approaches to working with students. We even assign specific students to specific corps members to be coached in Early Warning Indicator areas, including 'behavior'.
Yet, when we step into the schoolhouse,whether it be day one or day 180,do we fully understand what it means to be a mentor?
A friend of mine recently sent me links to a host of Jon Young talks about mentorship and what mentorship means. My friend kept saying, "This always makes me think of you and the work you're doing." Jon Young is the co-founder of the Wilderness Awareness School in northwest Washington State. He is the co-author of The Art of Mentoring and Coyote Teaching, Animal Tracking Basics, and What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, among many other titles dealing with nature and mentorship. He asserts that interaction with nature is the purest form of mentorship.
As I perused the links and listened to Young's philosophies, I realized that this man's approach is simple, gentle, and genius;
Young was interviewed for the book The Great Turning by David Korten, where he offered some perspective on shaping our worldview based on free will vs. through mentoring awareness:
"There's an assumption that we make in the modern experience of education where if we learn something it's because we want to… it's all about free will of choice, freedom of expression… and that's actually quite the opposite of what really happens… If I'm unaware of something as an individual, it will be the mentor that calls me on that and helps me to see that I have a blind spot.
….The next time I'm alone, he's still with me, even though he's gone. And now I'm listening—'what else am I missing?'”
Young brings into focus the mentor's ability to coach the mentee in a very innate way. Effective mentors have the ability to cognitively coach mentees toward their own self-awareness, through what could be described as intentional, vicarious curiosity. The ability to "call them on their blind spots" is something a mentor must value. Tying this back to City Year's methodology of mentorship, again I ask, what can we BE, KNOW, and/or DO to ensure success for AmeriCorps members?
According to Jon Young, we must be present. We must be patient. And we must be willing to listen.
We must know that every young person we interact with is innately and uniquely brilliant. We must know that listening with passion will help them cultivate confidence, leadership, and self-worth.
Lastly, we must do what is best for the students. After all, we are not students' friends, we are their coaches; we are their mentors. Calling our students' attention to their blind spots is something that may be uncomfortable at first, but it also may be what gets them to think more critically, question things more astutely, and become more resilient.