There are No Mistakes in Mentoring: 7 Best Practices I Forgot and then Remembered

By: Jessica Flowers, Free Arts Program Director

In 2007, I was hired to coordinate the Weekly Mentor Program at Free Arts.  As a part of my training, I led my own weekly mentor group and visited countless mentors to observe their programs and offer feedback. I ran this program for six years, wrote project curriculum, trained mentors, continued to observe mentor groups, and ran yet another group of my own.  One would think that I would be an “expert” mentor, knowing exactly what projects to choose, what supplies to bring, and how to engage both children and partner agency staff members.  Well, this session, 12 years after that first weekly mentor group, I am leading another, along with two fantastic partners, and man, have I made some mistakes!  Each time I forgot something or did something that I had cautioned mentors a dozen times not to forget or to do, I wrote it down on a sticky note.  The list below is a compilation of those sticky notes and the solutions that came out of those mistakes learning moments.

Learning Moment #1 – Do you have a pencil?

This is the question I was asked at our very first session.  It seemed simple enough.  “Sure!”  I replied, turning to check my green bag.  “Surely, I packed pencils,”  I thought to myself.  I felt a flush rise on my face.  I slowly turned back around.  “I’m sorry, I don’t have a pencil.  But I’ll do my best to pack them next week.”

Best practice – Bring a bag of “general” supplies that you can keep with you each week.  Include white paper, pencils, sharpeners, rulers, crayons, markers, sharpies, plastic tables clothes, paper towel, and other things I’m sure I haven’t thought of. 

Learning Moment #2 – Did you bring the pencils?

I didn’t even have to say it. “Gosh darn it!  What is with you people!” said the disgruntled mentee, clearly frustrated with my utter incompetence.  “I’m sorry.  I messed up and forgot to pack the pencils you asked me for last week.  Please let me try again.”  I said in a small voice.

Best practice – As Brene Brown says, “trust is built in the small moments.”  And for these kids, they need to practice trusting adults and to be shown that adults can be trustworthy.  Write yourself a note, put it on your calendar, do ANYTHING to help yourself remember the thing(s) that you said you were going to do/bring.  And if you screw up, explain, apologize, and ask for another chance. You are modeling humble, honest behavior in this situation as well. 

Learning Moment #3 – If you feed them, they will come

We had some leftover chocolate at our house this week.  I wanted it out, so I threw it in a bag to take to my mentor group, halfway through the group I passed it out.  The teens in my group were thrilled!  I 

made it a point to offer some to the staff members who facillated over the decision of dark vs. milk chocolate and then they asked if they could have two.  “Yes, of course,” I said.  And suddenly, these previously unengaged staff members were helping the teens with supplies and assisting with cleanup. 

Best Practice – Occasional snacks can win you allies!

Learning Moment #4 – The Not-So-Magic Wand

We mentor at a treatment center, that means that there are a few rules that need to be strictly followed. These rules aren’t written out, they are just suggested to you when you start, but following them is important.  For kids in treatment, cutting is a big thing, so many of the objects that you need to be careful about are sharp things; scissors, carving tools, and even tops of pencils.  I’ve been doing this work for 12 years.  I know this rule.  However, at our 8th session, I distributed a few pairs of scissors to each table which the teens used to cut cardstock and create affirmation cards.  Toward the end of our hour, a staff member from the partner agency entered the room and approached me, “Did you count the scissors?”  He asked.  I was dumbstruck.  I repeated his question, “Did I count the scissors?” “Yes,” he said, asking again, “Did you count the scissors?”  “Ah… no,” I replied. “I’m sorry.  I forgot.”  “Not good,” he said.  “Not good at all.”  I asked, “Then what can I do to help the situation?”  “Nothing now,” he said, shrugging.  “But I’ll be back,” he said, not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger.   (Terminator, anyone?)  He left with another member of the staff.  By this time our group was finishing up and kids were grabbing their projects and heading for the door.  A short while later, both men reappeared with metal paddles in their hands.  “You know the drill,” Arnold said to the girl at the front of the line that had formed.  And with that, the two staff members metal scanned every kid as they left the space.

Best practice – Be vigilant when it comes to the facility rules, even if they seem silly, even if one staff member tells you to do something and the other staff member tells you to not worry about it.  The rules are for the safety of the children and they will be enforced somehow.  What I learned from this experience is that I’d rather enforce the rules my way than watch the kids that I’m working with undergo a safety check like that.

Learning Moment #5 – OK, girls!

We mentor at a site that is traditionally an “all girls” facility.  However, at our orientation meeting with the partner agency staff, we were warned that there were a few girls that identified themselves using male pronouns. The second week of our group we did

 an introductory activity asking everyone to share their pronoun.  Many of the participants didn’t know what we meant.  After explaining, they all identified as “she/her.” Two sessions later we had several new kids.  We did a different opening activity that day, one that did not involve pronouns and gender identity.  During that session out of habit, I slipped into referring to the group as “girls.”  When we gathered to share the masks we had made at the end of the night one of our participants showed us the inside of their mask where they had proudly painted a rainbow and collaged the word “man.” It landed on me like a ton of bricks.  As the session closed, I looked for this young man, but he had already slipped away.  This past week, he was there.  I could say it was because of time or the fact that I forgot, but I think it was really fear that kept me from pulling him aside and saying, “Thank you for so bravely sharing with all of us that you identify as a man.  I’ll work to do a better job moving forward to refer to you in that way and will stop using the word “girls” to refer to our group.”  I promise to make this happen next week.

Best practice – Don’t assume.  Ask instead. 

Learning Moment #6 – Happy Holidays

As an intro activity toward the end of our mentor term, I was looking for something light but personal that we might share as a get-to-know-you activity.  I chose “My Favorite Holiday.”  As we went around the room, the teens bravely stood one-by-one and shared their names, holidays, and reasons why they liked that day.  They shared things like, “because my grandma always bakes a pie” and “because I get to dress up and pretend to be someone else.”  Then we got to one young lady who was brand new to the group.  She shared her name and then, with a sullen face, said, “I don’t have a favorite holiday because I don’t celebrate.”  I told her that she could share her favorite season instead, and she said “fall” and then sat down with a huff.  We moved on to introduce our main activity and moments later I realized that she’d left the room to head back to her cottage, deciding not to participate tonight. 

Best practice – While you can’t anticipate all of the reactions that children might have to your words or prompts, if you think about them ahead of time you can often come up with inclusive or alternative language or options to present.  If I had spent five minutes prior to my group to pr

epare an opening activity, I may have been able to consider the implication of holidays with people of different religions and backgrounds and been able to offer up the option talking about a season upfront instead of as an afterthought, making the young lady who chose to leave the group feel more included. 

Learning Moment #7 – True Connection- in spite (or because of) mistakes

At our final group, we celebrated our 14 weeks together with popsicles and tie-dye.  To close the evening, we presented each teen with a flower.  Looking into their eyes we told them what we appreciated most about them.  For several, there were tea

rs and, afterward, side hugs and comments like, “You made my week” and “This group has been so important to me.”   At that moment it was very clear to me that our consistency, openness, willingness to try and fail, and the creative intention that we had brought to this experience had overshadowed any mistakes I may have made along the way. 

Best practice – Mentor.  Just do it.  It will be the absolute bright spot in your week.  It will challenge you, it will challenge the children you are working with, and you will all be better people at the end of it.  You will carry with you the stories you heard, the memories you made, and things that you learned.  It will change you.  And in spite of your mistakes, it will change them too.

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