Monday, March 29, 2010

Sometimes a Mentor Needs a Mentor too!

I attended a basic mentor training for people who volunteer to work with kids. It was an interesting evening that brought home the point that whether we teach, volunteer, coach or mentor, the key to the work is not the skills we teach, but the relationships we make. This can be very challenging.

I left the training thinking that in spite of my education, and my broad and varied experience working with kids, I wish I that had had the chance to learn more about how to connect with kids, and how to handle the impact of their lives and behavior on my own emotions.

I have worked with kids all my life, starting as a pre-teen babysitter and moving on to day camp counselor, and then a summer camp counselor. I ran an after school arts and crafts program at the Y. I worked one-on-one with a very ill child (and his six siblings). I fulfilled my educational psychology requirements by volunteering with children in the psychiatric ward of a large NYC hospital.

After college, I spent several years doing recreation and occupational therapy in an adolescent psychiatric hospital. I’ve been a TAG teacher, an Olympics of the Mind coach, a mother helper, an artist in the schools; I’ve raised two children, and been part of the lives of numerous friends, scouts, classmates and neighbors.

In my many kid related jobs, I received lots of training, all of it related to research, skills and responsibilities of my job. None, as far as I can remember, was about relating to the kids. Now, when I look back, what stands out the most in my memory was not the days when everything went well, when the art projects got done, when all the kids were happy to play volleyball or write and share poetry, or hike all day. What I remember are the times when things went wrong, and I was unsure about the right thing to do, and where to turn for help.

Those of us who mentor, teach or work with kids make a commitment to do the best possible job we can. We sign up because we want to help kids, to teach them, to enrich their lives, to make the world better. We bring our skills, talents, and good intentions. But in spite of this, and even in the most ideal circumstances, things can (and do) go wrong. I was often unprepared to deal with the ‘surprise events’ that occurred; the moments that were not covered by my job description or training.

Though I was a whiz at creating a work of art out of mismatched tempera paints, dried out brushes, oatmeal boxes and scraps of wood, I had no idea what I supposed to do when a an angry parent arrived in the room yelling … at the kid, or at me.

Though I could organize games, or brainstorm seventeen things to do with a lemon and a paperclip, how could I best help the child who cried to me because her mother had “bumps in her breast?” What was the protocol to deal with a suicide threat written into a short story, or the time a kid ran away from a group outing?
No one ever taught me how to encourage a kid to talk, or get a reluctant kid to join a game. How was I to make a new kid feel welcome, or help a kid fit in, or defuse a fight between two kids who were bigger than me?

In each of these experiences, I did the best I could. My results cover the spectrum from inspiration to "I could have done better."
The mentor training made me realize that my job might have been easier and my results better if I had had a mentor – someone who talked to me about the challenges I faced when I chose to work with kids. Someone who had ideas, and knowledge and experiences that would have prepared me before I had to react, not after.

So these are my questions:

- What kinds of mentor training do you know about?

- If you were training someone to be a mentor, what is the most important thing you would share?

- Were you taught how to mentor? How, where? What did you learn?

- What do you wish you had learned?

Please use this blog to share your thoughts.