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Teachers mentors of children: teachers and children share much of their day together, and so certainly have an important influence on each other. But are teachers mentors of children? Do teachers perceive themselves as mentors.

I recently participated in a conference, sponsored by an organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, that focused on the mentoring of children and adolescents. The underlying assumption was that mentoring by a caring person, either adult, older youth, or peer, might help all children and particularly at-risk children, who are often vulnerable for child abuse. This assumption is supported by research on resiliency, which suggests that a caring adult can be a protective factor for children who are at risk. As an early childhood teacher educator, I naturally thought about the role of teachers and whether they are or can be mentors for children. Teachers and children share much of their day together, and so certainly have an important influence on each other. But are teachers mentors of children? Do teachers perceive themselves as mentors? Is the mentoring role compatible with the teacher's role? How does the teacher-student relationship overlap or differ from the mentor-mentee role? Are there benefits for children and teachers having a mentoring relationship?

Most of the professional literature on teachers as mentors focuses on teachers mentoring other adult educational professionals, particularly new teachers entering the profession (Elliot et al., 2000; Enerson, 2001; Jones, 1986; Martin & Ashelman, 1999; Thornburg, 2001; Whitebook & Bellm, 1996). Much of the literature on children mentored in schools describes the use of adults from the community participating in the school as volunteer mentors of a t-risk children (Ryan, Whittaker, & Pinckney, 2002; Townsel, 1997). The roles of these community adults vary from offering guidance, having a special relationship, or tutoring their mentee children in academic subjects. Other articles describe projects in which teachers serve as mentors and often as academic tutors of individual children outside of the classroom (Abcug, 1991; Anderson & Blackwood, 2000; Donahue, 1996; Ellis, Small-McGinley, & DeFabrizio, 1999; Fehr, 1993; Hylan & Postlethwaite, 1998). Experience in school settings suggests that education professionals functioning outside of the regular classroom, such as a sports coach, activity adviser, or counselor, are often mentors for individual children. However, few articles describe the process of teaching itself as mentoring or study regular classroom teachers mentoring children within the classroom (Benard, 1997; Duff & Home, 1997; Parese, 2002; Shreffler, 1998).

This discussion of classroom teachers serving as mentors of children draws from the literature on the origin of mentoring, the definition of mentoring, and the current theory on the characteristics and qualities that define an excellent mentor-mentee relationship. Parallels between the study of adult mentoring relationships and the teacher-child relationship will be described, as will the benefits of a mentoring relationship for both the children and the teacher.

Origin and Definition of Mentoring

The origin of mentoring can be found in the ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey by Homer (Zachary, 2000). In the poem, before Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War he gives the responsibility of nurturing his son Telemachus to his loyal friend, Mentor. Mentor is charged with educating his friend's son not only in the martial arts but also in every facet of life. The relationship between Mentor and Telemachus is not without its difficulties; Mentor needs to make Telemachus aware of his mistakes without having Telemachus become rebellious. In fact, one of Mentor's goals is to guide Telemachus so that he will learn from his mistakes (Zachary, 2000).

In this traditional definition of mentoring, the mentor is the source of wisdom, guidance, and expertise, who shares his knowledge with the mentee. The mentor is often an older, more experienced person who is committed to helping the younger, less experienced person become better prepared in all aspects and arenas of life--intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual development; work life; and personal life. Mentoring may be defined as the deliberate pairing of a more skilled or experienced person with a less skilled person, with the agreed-upon goal of having the less skilled person grow and develop (Hylan & Postlethwaite, 1998; Townsel, 1997; Zachary, 2000). The mentor is considered to have excellent character and models a high standard of behavior. The mentor sets high expectations of performance and character for the mentee and is able to motivate the mentee in "new ways to be" (Zachary, 2000). The relationship is based on mutual respect, trust, and caring. This traditional view of mentoring reminds me of the play and motion picture Camelot, in which Arthur seeks the advice of his wise, old mentor Merlin on the ways of becoming a king and ruler, as well as on the ways to "handle a woman."

Traditional Roles of Teacher and Student

The traditional view of mentoring seems consistent with the traditional roles of teacher and student. The role of teacher is the wise expert who imparts knowledge to the less skilled or knowledgeable students. The students' role is to listen to the teacher and learn. The teacher's responsibility is to offer insight into the subject matter, make the students aware of their mistakes, and guide them so that they learn from their mistakes. Teachers maintain high expectations for their students and motivate them to learn. Unlike the traditional mentor, however, they typically are not responsible for all areas of life, but rather only for academic and intellectual development.

Mentoring As a Learning Relationship

Current theory about the mentoring process with adult mentors and adult mentees interprets the roles of mentor and mentee differently. Lois Zachary, in The Mentor's Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships (2000), describes mentoring as a learning relationship in which both the mentor and the mentee gain knowledge. The relationship is based on mutual respect, trust, shared goals, and a commitment to growth and change in both parties. As part of the growth experience, both partners must reveal themselves, risk making mistakes, and accept each other's strengths and weaknesses. Through a collaborative relationship, both the mentor and the mentee achieve their goals and personally grow and develop (Zachary, 2000).

The mentor is a facilitative partner in an evolving relationship, focused on the mentee's learning goals and objectives. The mentor's role is changed from "'sage on the stage' to 'guide on the side'" (Zachary, 2000, p. 3). The traditional roles of authoritarian teacher and passive learners no longer exist. In this mentoring paradigm, the mentor and mentee share the responsibility for learning, setting priorities and learning objectives, and acquiring needed resources.

According to Zachary (2000), the mentor facilitates the learning process by: 1) establishing a positive climate for learning; 2) involving the learner in planning how and what they will learn; 3) setting realistic expectations for the learner; 4) providing a vision of the whole learning situation; 5) asking questions, offering alternatives, and challenging the mentee's thought processes; 6) creating a tension or challenge that motivates the resolution of problems; 7) listening carefully to what the mentee is saying and not saying; and 8) giving the mentee a helping hand when needed.

Just as important, the mentor and mentee engage in reflective thinking throughout the process (Zachary, 2000). The mentor, reflecting critically on his or her own prior learning experiences, models for the mentee critical reflection on the current learning experience. The reflection leads the mentor to practical, specific feedback about the learning. Together, the mentor and mentee reflect on their progress toward their goals, determine how to continue the learning process, and acknowledge and celebrate their achievements. The critical reflection process and a disposition of openness to learning from each other can result in new insights and valuable new skills for both the mentor and the mentee (Zachary, 2000).

Teaching As a Mutual Learning Relationship

The view of mentoring as a learning relationship between the mentor and mentee is consistent with the current approaches to education based on the constructivist philosophy. One program that employs such collaboration is the widely respected Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998). In this approach, children, with their unique strengths and potential, are viewed as powerful, capable learners who construct their own knowledge through work on long-term projects. The projects, based on the children's interests, are in-depth explorations of a topic over an extended period of time (Katz & Chard, 1989; Trepanier-Street, 1993). In project work, children, in collaboration with each other and the teacher, decide what they already know, what they want to know, how they will explore, what materials they need, and what they will accomplish (Trepanier-Street, 2000; Trepanier-Street, Gregory, & Bauer, 1999). Children grow and develop through collaborative interactions and relationships among peers, the teachers, families, the community, and the environment.

In the Reggio Emilia approach, the role of the teacher is that of facilitator, resourceful partner, and provocateur of learning. To support the project work, the teacher keenly observes the children's actions and interactions, listens closely to their spoken and unspoken language, and documents their actions, interactions, and language. Together, the children and teacher review the documentation, reflect on their learning, acknowledge their accomplishments, and determine further project explorations. Joint reflection on learning helps both the children and the teacher to analyze successful problem-solving strategies and consolidate and refine their thinking. Through observing, listening, and documenting, the teacher sends the message to the children that they and their ideas are respected and valued. By reflecting on the documentation, the teacher gains new insights into the children's learning process, the effectiveness of teaching methods and strategies that promote and extend children's development, and the teacher's own professional development.

Convincing the Skeptics

Some critics are skeptical about teachers and children engaging in a mentor-mentee learning relationship. Some might point out that teachers just do not have the time to develop positive mentoring relationships with children, even if they thought it was important and desirable. Given the large number of children in each classroom and the current pressure and emphasis on academic achievement and assessment, they doubt teachers have the time to develop strong, collaborative, personal learning relationships with children.

Some also may say it is not the teacher's role to have intense relationships with children. Children come from too many different home environments, and their social and emotional needs stemming from home and community problems are just too great. The teacher, unable to meet these needs or solve these problems, must focus only on the academic needs of the children within the classroom. Furthermore, some believe that in this litigious society, relationships with children are just too risky for the teacher. Also, intense relationships can lead to teacher "burnout" (Shreffler, 1998).

Other critics may argue that some communities or families believe that a teacher should have an authoritarian teaching approach, and that the mentoring relationship gives too much power to children. Others may believe that mentoring as a learning relationship puts too much of a burden on children; that is, they believe that setting goals is the responsibility of the adult, or that children are not capable of handling so much responsibility for their own learning. In addition, some critics may see the teacher's role as evaluator of children's learning as incompatible with the mentor role. The mentoring relationship may unduly influence the evaluation, or evaluation may in some way destroy the relationship. While some of the above criticisms may have some validity, the dilemmas they present can be resolved. Resolution could result in many important and valuable benefits for both the teacher and children involved in a mentoring relationship.


The potential numerous and life-changing benefits of a mentoring relationship between a teacher and child can far outweigh the cost in time and effort for all involved. Through the mentoring experience, the children come to see themselves as capable, competent, and empowered people with unique strengths, worthy of valuing by self and others. Children realize that they can set goals, have high standards and learning expectations, and successfully achieve these standards and goals. They view themselves as problem solvers, decision makers, and constructors of their own knowledge and learning. The mentoring relationship gives children the opportunity to work collaboratively with others, developing many personal interaction skills helpful in future relationships.

Benard (1997) describes the power of a "turnaround" teacher, a mentor teacher who helps children, particularly at-risk children, to tip the scale from risk to resilience. Such teachers are willing to share power with children, develop caring relationships, and have positive and high expectations. Turnaround mentor teachers are child-centered, recognize children's strengths rather than their deficits, and use the strengths, interests, goals, and dreams of children as the starting point for learning (Benard, 1997). As a consequence of having a relationship with a turnaround mentor teacher, at-risk children develop resilience; that is, they gain the capacity to transform or to change, no matter what the risk. Children learn resilience skills, such as the ability to form relationships and gain social competence; problem solve, plan, and develop metacognitive skills; practice independence and autonomy; and develop a sense of identity (Benard, 1997). Townsel (1997) shares a similar view about mentoring at-risk children, suggesting that mentoring be built on the "Challenge Model," in which children move from fear to the power and pride of being competent.

Most critically, as a result of the mentoring experience, all children, even those at risk, can experience hope (Benard, 1997; Duff & Horne, 1997; Townsel, 1997). They can gain a sense of purpose and feel ready and able to survive difficult circumstances. Lisa Horne, a young African American woman reflecting on her teaching in a large urban high school and on the mentors in her life, writes that the origin of "the word educate means to draw out. If we take the time as teachers and mentors to draw out the best qualities of our students, we can renew hope. They will be able to exceed their own expectations as well as anyone else's. This is what mentors did for me" (Duff & Horne, 1997, p. 73).

The benefits for the teacher in a mentoring relationship with children are similar to the benefits described by Zachary (2000) for an adult mentoring relationship. As a result of a mentoring learning relationship, the teacher is renewed in purpose, has expanded energy for professional and personal growth, and is more satisfied in her professional and personal life. Through reflection on the mentoring learning process, the teacher learns new ways of interacting with children, determines and practices effective teaching strategies and methods, develops the curriculum, and assesses student progress. As a mentor, the teacher experiences revitalization, further empowerment, and a deep and profound satisfaction from developing a strong relationship and connection with children. Mentoring as a learning relationship can challenge the teacher to become the best teacher possible.


Engaging in a learning mentoring relationship requires much time, effort, energy, risk-taking, and commitment on the part of children and teachers. However, the benefits of such a relationship are numerous, profound, and rewarding for all those involved. I challenge teachers to initiate learning mentoring relationships with the children in their classroom.


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Jones, E. (1986). Teaching adults: An active approach. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Katz, L., & Chard, S. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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Shreffler, M. R. (1998). Raising a village: Whitemale teachers as role models for African American male students. The Journal of Negro Education, 67(2), 91-95.

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Mary Trepanier-Street is Professor, Early Childhood, University of Michigan-dearborn.
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Author:Trepanier-Street, Mary
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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