“Can I leave this here?”
“What?” Bewildered I turn and shake my head. An unfamiliar student is reaching through my office door with a backpack dangling precariously from his fingers. “No. Don't you have a locker?”
“No.” Our eyes clash and a staring match begins. I search with suspicion for any signs of deviant purpose. His eyes survey me with equal disdain. “Come on now, you're gonna' make me late.” He emphasizes this with an eye roll and impatient sigh.
I arch my eyebrows and drop my chin slightly. I'm certain my actions will indicate my displeasure with the situation. Unfortunately, he misinterprets my response as a nod of acceptance, dumps the bag haphazardly on the floor, and rushes out of the media center.
This is how it began. Happy accidents—isn't that what they're called? That moment when you feel a deep seated sense of anxiety only to find it dissipates with a reversal of fortune. And although neither one of us knew what we were getting into that day, we have successfully stumbled our way through a maze of uncertainties, frustrations, and misunderstandings to establish a foundation of mentorship in the media center. This student changed not only the way I view the media center but my role as a media specialist. And the entire journey was traveled without a single book being lifted from the shelf.
STRATEGY 1: WELCOME EVERYONE, NOT JUST THE READERS
The door of the media center bursts open and he swaggers in a few hours later. Shoving past the book display my colleague and I meticulously arranged, he saunters forth with one hand hitching up his sagging jeans and the other trailing a pencil noisily across the slats of the circulation desk. To protect his identity, I'll refer to him as Sven. (He'd get a kick out of that, I'm sure.) Sven comes to a halt at my office door and eyes his backpack, which is still sprawled on the floor in the corner.
Pursing his lips, he swings his gaze to me and questions, “So it's ok to leave it until tomorrow?”
I shrug with acceptance. “I guess.” I try to keep my voice level and unintimidating. “What's in it? Don't you need it for class?”
He quickly snatches it up, unzips it, and dumps it out on the circulation desk. “Nope. Ain't nothing in it.”
A few wrinkled scraps of notebook paper mingle with pencil shavings and empty chip bags on the table. Nothing, indeed. After returning the backpack to my office floor, Sven throws his chin up and saunters back out pausing only to scoff briefly at the students lingering in the fiction aisle.
I couldn't help but wonder why he was coming into the media center. What was he looking for? The books obviously didn't appeal to him. And he certainly didn't appear to associate with any of the students who frequented the school library daily. Then it occurred to me. Maybe he was looking for the same thing as every student in our small, rural school: a place to belong. Perhaps he had exhausted every other area in the building and this was his last resort.
I began researching his academic history and reviewed his performance in class. At the time, he was a freshman and his behavior in and out of the classroom left a lot to be desired. Sven was one of our at-risk students and in need of a lot of support. Unsure of how to proceed with the situation, I sought out one of our school counselors for advice.
After explaining the situation, I waited and watched as the counselor relaxed against the wall and smiled slightly. “So,” he replied, “he adopted you ?
I responded, “That's the gist of it.” With his encouragement for establishing and building a relationship with Sven, I listened carefully to his expert advice and conducted research to assist in establishing an effective mentoring program for our media center. Messacar and Oreopoulos stress, “The school environment itself is obviously [a] strong determinant of whether at-risk students succeed” (Messacar 58). Maybe Sven was simply looking for a place of welcome. Or, at least, a place where he could feel comfortable. I decided to carve out a space for him in the media center where he could stash his belongings and check in each day.
An additional element of a successful mentoring relationship is “Mentors provide an outlet for [mentees] to voice their opinions without fear of retribution, to explore their ideas without fear of judgment, and to discover their strengths and limitations without fear of failure” (Pomeroy 197). Clearly, Sven wasn’t afraid to express himself and delivered his thoughts with complete openness. I felt it was important to build this rapport with him. During his frequent visits to the media center, I let him gripe about his academic frustrations and listened as he expressed disdain for certain classes. Then, I would gently steer the dialog into a more positive place, and we would come up with different solutions to try for each problem. Some worked, some didn’t. And, at times, he would smirk at my suggestions and guffaw as he ambled out. Yet, just his presence seemed to change the stream of traffic in the media center. Soon after his regular entrance at lunch, I would see two or three other students who didn’t fit the mold of our regular patrons trail in after him and lift their chins at him through my office window. Sometimes they would wander to the back of the media center to sit and gaze out of the windows. Others paired up at checker tables to play a few rounds before leaving.
Apparently, just the presence of a student who was seemingly the opposite of those who usually frequented the media center opened up a door for other students. My colleague and I consciously began ensuring that every student was acknowledged either as they entered the media center or as they left. This way, they would know they were always welcome.
STRATEGY 2: ENLIST A COLLEAGUE
“There are probably as many mentoring styles as there are personality types, and no one can be everything to one person” (Whelley 48). On some occasions, my advice or assistance would get the immediate job done for whatever challenge Sven was facing. Many times my help was not enough. I then called upon the media specialist assistant as well as the counselor I initially consulted.
One particularly tough day, Sven entered the media center angrily and became very vocal with his displeasure with the world at large. I couldn’t break away to go over and settle him down. My assistant stepped in and firmly admonished him for his behavior. She then proceeded to place a comforting hand on his shoulder and give him a quiet pep talk. This alone seemed to do the trick. Sven made it through the rest of the day without incident. From that point on, she carried the role of disciplinarian. When Sven sees her, he immediately pulls up his saggy pants and stands a little straighter.Although Sven has his share of challenging times, he also has a slew of successful days. On occasions, when he excels in class or brings up his average by a couple of well-earned points, the counselor makes it a point to give him a pat on the back in the hallway to boost his spirits and reinforce his accomplishments. Praise from a third party goes an exceptionally long way and strengthens the foundation of trust formed with a mentee. Potato chips and candy bars do, too, I've discovered. We've designated a drawer in a media center file cabinet as Sven's snack stash and make sure he never runs out of treats. We have a mutual understanding this drawer belongs to him and he has permission to access it whenever he needs. That is, of course, unless his grades drop. Then the drawer goes on lockdown.
STRATEGY 3: HAVE AN OPEN DOOR POLICY
“Availability is the standout quality appreciated by . . . mentees. Despite enormous workloads and responsibilities, the mentor was always there and the door was always open” (Lee 793). Understandably, I could not always be in the media center or always be able to drop what I was doing to meet with Sven. I quickly found that he was as understanding of my hectic schedule as I was of his. And as long as I was consistent with getting back to him in a timely manner, he had no qualms about scribbling a note on my desk or leaving a message with the media specialist assistant. As long as we were all consistent, Sven felt my assistant and I were always available to him.
As a result, we've had several other students gravitate to the media center office for advice or drop a hint that they're having a tough day. We have developed an understanding with students in which they are free to vent about their frustrations in private, and after doing so, they are willing to discuss possible resolutions to their problems. Occasionally, this means seeking assistance from teachers who have a strong bond with students or asking a counselor to sit in on the dialogs. By doing so, this gives us the opportunity to extend our presence and support beyond the walls of the media center. We took great care to develop an open door policy and it was difficult. It was, however, completely worth it.
STRATEGY 4: PROVIDE SOCIAL SUPPORT
One of my most humorous, but cringe worthy, memories of Sven was the day he entered the media center with a mischievous grin and chartered a path directly to the barstool section. As he approached the tables lined with female students, each sitting on a barstool by the other, he threw out an outstretched arm and bopped the back of their heads with his hand all the way down the line. Of course, each girl screeched a very unflattering remark and expressed their intense dislike of Sven in general. Sven, however, saw this as just a friendly gesture of admiration for them and didn't understand their discontent.
After discussing the behavior with him, we encouraged him to come up with other ways with which to garner attention. With patience we managed to help Sven develop more socially acceptable ways of interacting with his peers.
“Because of its association with resilience, social support is likely to promote academic resilience and positive educational outcomes for at-risk students” (Richman 311). As we progressed with our work with Sven, we began to notice his behavior improve inside and outside of the classroom. Surprisingly, he even began stopping by to let me know when he did behave inappropriately. He was eager to explain why he behaved the way he did and point out how he could have handled the situation differently. I could see he was developing a pride in himself that may not have been as strong prior to his coming to the media center for support.
“[Mentors] provide encouragement at moments of disillusionment, crisis, or despair” (Pomeroy 197). This element of effective mentorship was especially important during our work with Sven and two other students seeking support in the media center. Each student came to us with different problems, but they all had one thing in common. The challenges they were facing were overwhelming them to the point of helplessness. Once at-risk students feel despair in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they shut down very quickly, making it vital for mentors to establish and maintain a steady presence in each student's school day.
Sven agreed to stop by every morning to check in and begin the day on a positive note as well as swing by at lunch for a snack and a quick report on how the day was going. Gradually, he also began stopping by for a chat at the end of each school day prior to leaving to discuss any issues he may be facing the next day. This also enabled us to keep a close eye on his attendance, tardiness, and general well-being throughout each school week. When we notice a problem beginning to occur, we can step in much more quickly and prevent the problem from fully developing.
After three years of working with Sven, the number of students in our program has steadily grown. We now mentor five students every day; several others visit less often but consistently check in with us when they face a difficult problem. And, surprisingly, the participants have expanded to also include teachers who seek support and encouragement on difficult days. Teachers have a very stressful career, and it helps to offer them a safe place to express their doubts and frustrations without fear of criticism or judgment. Candy (especially chocolate), I've discovered, works just as well for soothing teachers' nerves as it does students. So a second drawer in our media center file cabinet has been designated as the “Teachers' Stash” and is accessible to those who drop in whenever they need it. We've also made it a point to drop handwritten notes or cheerful cards in their mailboxes for when they need extra support.
“Without mentors, the pressures of . . . education . . . could become overwhelming at best and agonizing at worst” (Pomeroy 197). We all need a comforting pat on the back at times, and we've found the students and teachers we assist are also eager to provide assistance to us.
On our most difficult days, my assistant and I will find ourselves sitting in the same chairs our teachers did the day before, receiving strength and encouragement from them. And when we're juggling several tasks at once at lunch, we find our students step in to check out books when we're overrun or offer help to other students working on projects. We are not the only mentors now. Students have taken on the role as well.
The fact that Sven began it all will make it especially bittersweet when he graduates at the end of the school year. Four years, 2,000 pencils, 979 honey buns, and 87 pep talks later, Sven will walk across the stage and receive his diploma. I'm sure on the morning of graduation we'll tighten his tie, straighten his cap, and compliment his achievements. Yet, we'll also know Sven may never truly realize how much he has changed the media center itself, or those who frequent it. And he accomplished it all without ever touching a book in the media center; much to my chagrin and his amusement.
“Can I leave this here?”
MLA Citation Standard, April. "Beyond the Books: Mentorship in the Media Center." Library Media Connection, 33, no. 1, August 2014. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2189117.
Entry ID: 1949170