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Overcoming fear: mentoring’s challenges and rewards [Voices from the Field]

“What is an irrational fear you have?” This was a question I asked Manuel*, a tenth-grade student I mentored during my year of service as a City Year Los Angeles AmeriCorps member. It was part of a game I introduced to get him engaged in our time together.

When I started working with Manuel one-on-one last fall, I couldn’t seem to reach him. Although he is usually outgoing and full of energy, I noticed that he was a different person during our time together. When I asked him questions, I often got one-word answers and a lack of eye contact. He’d slump over his desk during tutoring, resting his head in his hands. After this struggle went on for nearly four months– even as I tried implementing different learning strategies–I was afraid that we might not ever be able to make a connection. I was at a loss for what to do next.

Then something clicked. I decided to turn my fears into a game plan. What if I contacted the City Year AmeriCorps member he worked with last year for advice? I knew the better my connection with Manuel, the more I could support his success in school.

His former City Year AmeriCorps member, Mariana, observed that Manuel liked to be physically active during class time. She recommended I try a game where you throw around a beach ball with questions written on it; most questions are lighthearted, but some are personal, like the one about irrational fears. You throw the ball to the other person and wherever your thumb lands, that’s the question the person answers.

Mariana thought the game would be a good way to engage Manuel so that he could open up and share more about himself while still being active. As it turned out, this game provided the breakthrough moment I needed to build a mentoring relationship with Manuel.

Manuel and I started playing the “ball game” before our lessons in January. After only one time of playing the game, I saw a shift in how he responded verbally to me. We wouldn”t play every single day, but when we did, we were able to be vulnerable with each other. This led to mutual understanding and trust. What I remember most is just laughing and bonding over our shared and different life experiences.

Manuel is working on increasing his proficiency in reading and writing, and his body language in the classroom has changed completely; he sits straight up and is visibly engaged when we work together. To some, this progress may seem small but I know that meeting students at their level is key to helping them dream big. For a student to be able to learn and be excited about school, they need to feel comfortable and connected to someone who cares, and know that they will have consistent support.

As a mentor, building connections with students takes time. It can be intimidating. Like me, you might have fears or doubts about the lack of shared experiences. Like me, you might feel like making an effort to reach out doesn’t make a difference the first time, second time or hundredth time.

I know from my experience working with Manuel that showing consistency and spending time with students can break down barriers.  As I finish my time with City Year this month and continue on my professional journey, I will not forget the things I learned from Manuel. Any fears I had about being a good mentor at the beginning of the school year have transformed into a true passion for helping students reach their full potential.

Students will remember the time you’ve put in to getting to know them. Try a funny game, get a conversation going. I promise, you will make a difference.

*Student’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.   

Robert Alvarado was a 2017 City Year Los Angeles AmeriCorps member. This post was originally shared as part of America’s Promise Alliance’s blog series. It was republished here with permission. 

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