Five Steps toward Distance Mentoring & Educational Equity during the Pandemic

Do you tutor or mentor a child, or run a tutoring or mentoring program?  If you are still figuring things out and looking for ideas, here is one relatively simple, measurable way to mentor or tutor at a distance during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic carries all kinds of risks, but in the education sector one risk looms large to me: closing schools risks aggravating educational inequalities, and for at least two reasons.  First, wealthier schools are generally better equipped to transition to structured, rigorous distance learning because they often have lower teacher-to-student ratios, and can provide laptops for students to take home, plus live online classes using advanced online learning software.  Second, home life in lower-income households is frequently less structured and parents are often less equipped and/or inclined to guide their children’s education.  Thus, “normal inequalities” are compounded when schools are closed, whether ordinarily during holiday and summer breaks, or extraordinarily, as in the case of the current pandemic.

In 2012, I founded Learning Life, a nonprofit lab based in the Washington DC metro area, to help address these normal inequalities that worsen life for people lower down the socio-economic scale.  Learning Life’s mission is to innovate education and citizen engagement outside school walls in part to help level the playing field for lower-income families.  Accordingly, we run an international mentoring program that helps open the world to children from lower-income families in Washington DC’s two poorest wards (Wards 7 and 8).  Normally, our mentors meet in-person with their mentees and learn about the world through visits to cultural festivals, embassies, museums, libraries, foreign restaurants.  But given the pandemic, we are now in the process of developing our mentoring by phone and online.

James&Paul.18.8.22Thus, I have begun mentoring my mentee, James, by phone.  James is a healthy, smart, energetic, 13-year old boy, but like many kids his age, he is easily distracted, especially by his phone.  To my pleasant surprise though, he has taken well to our phone mentoring sessions, attending, focusing and participating actively in our one-on-one sessions.  His constructive engagement may be due to boredom given he is out of school, or hunger for non-family social contact during the pandemic, but I also think we have hit on an effective distance-mentoring method that is worth sharing, especially if you work with children from lower-income families.

So, here are five elements of one effective distance-mentoring/tutoring method:

  1. Set a regular meeting schedule

Predictable structure is important, especially during what can become disorganized days for kids from lower-income families shut out from school.  Thus, consult with your mentee and their parent(s) to schedule regular meeting times and days each week.  Also, keep the meetings short, say 30 minutes.  This gives you and your mentee a predictable end time, and helps discipline you to use your time efficiently.  You can of course, go over the time limit you set if you are both so inclined but I do not recommend going far over as the time limit then becomes meaningless and the potential for much longer sessions may discourage one or both of you.  I meet with James Monday-Thursday at 3pm for 30 minutes per meeting.  You can do less or more depending on yours and your mentee’s schedule.

If necessary, remind your mentee or her/his parent(s) by text or phone call, or better, have them download a calendar app you use (e.g., Google calendar), if they do not already have it, so you can automatically alert them of the meeting say 30 minutes prior.

  1. Set a measurable learning agenda

In your first meeting, determine what want to learn about together.  This year, most Learning Life mentors are trying out adjusting our mentoring so our mentees can receive Congressional Awards.  The Congressional Award Foundation, the U.S. Congress’ only charity, awards bronze, silver and gold certificates and medals to children 13.5 to 24 years old nationwide who complete a certain number of hours on activities in four character-building domains: public service, personal development, physical fitness and cultural or environmental exploration.

Given our mentoring program is internationally focused, all our Congressional Award activities are oriented toward learning about the wider world outside the USA.  Given the pandemic, we cannot do public service, physical fitness or exploration activities easily and safely, so we are focusing on personal development, which can include learning about world topics (family life, food, holidays, religions, dance, music, work, etc.), or issues (pandemics, climate change, refugee crises, urbanization, poverty, etc.).

James wants to learn about drones and nuclear weapons, so we are focusing first on drones.  To start, I had him write down in five minutes everything he knows about drones while I waited on the phone.  I then asked James to photograph what he wrote so we can compare his knowledge about drones before and after we spend about 7.5 planned hours of learning about them.  We will do the same when we turn next to learning about nuclear weapons.

  1. Find the least distracting place

Like many children in lower-income families, James lives in a crowded apartment with his mother, two younger sisters, and grandfather, plus others (family and friends) who may stay for days, weeks or months.  Crowded conditions routinely make it harder for children to sleep and work.  In the current pandemic, when people are encouraged to practice “social distancing” by staying at home, this makes it all the more difficult for children to find a quiet place to study or hold a mentoring meeting.  I previously discussed with James the importance of finding the least distracting place to get his school work done, taking into account people, TVs, music, outdoor views, and other distractions.  Now, at the start of every phone mentoring meeting I ask James if he is in the least distracting place he can find, and he is used to moving to such a place.  This is not foolproof (e.g., his sisters often disturb our meetings), but it does help to at least reduce distractions.

  1. Vary the learning media

In my experience, children gravitate to learning from videos, but they can and should also learn from photos, text and audio.  Text is arguably most important among media because printed words best enable children to build their vocabularies, and improve their writing and speech.  Nonetheless, alternating media from one mentoring meeting to another can help sustain your mentee’s interest.  James and I alternate content about drones so that one day we watch and discuss a video, the next we read and talk about a 1-2 page reading, the next we look at and study a collection of photos.  Varying the learning media can also provide opportunities to develop your mentee’s media literacy by considering elements like word choice, camera position, video editing, order of presentation, who’s voices go heard and unheard, and so on.

  1. Let your mentee co-lead the learning

It is a pedagogical truism that children are more motivated to learn when the material interests them.  Thus, while Learning Life’s international mentoring program sets the broad parameter that the content mentors and mentees explore must be oriented to world learning, our mentees get considerable freedom in choosing the topics or issues they will pursue with their mentor.

In turn, in our phone mentor meetings, I encourage James, with my input, to choose the videos, readings and photo collections we examine, and to co-lead our discussions by alternating so that he asks me a comprehension or opinion question, then I ask him, and so on.  Similarly, when we read, James reads one paragraph, I read the next, he reads the next, etc. so that he practices reading and also hears someone more literate as he follows along.  This more interactive and participatory method helps ensure James’ sustained engagement.

No one is sure when the coronavirus pandemic will end and things will go back to normal, but there may be some silver linings.  For in-person mentoring programs like ours, the pandemic may teach us that you don’t have to be in your mentee’s presence to connect and learn with them.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life