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Spotlight blogs celebrate excellence in our Learning Innovation Network. This post is the first of three in a series about mentoring, also known as advisory. In Part 1, we learn about why the staff at the West Ada Academies in Idaho moved to mentoring and the foundational tools they used to support their mentoring programming. This series is written by Julia Miller, Instructional Coach, Meridian Academy, West Ada School District, Idaho.

Learners experience school differently each day. Some feel absolutely seen, celebrated, and propelled toward success. For others, school can feel overwhelming and confusing. This can lead to students feeling inconsequential and isolated, especially if their life circumstances and style do not fit the traditional picture of a ‘student’. In 2015, when West Ada Academies started making the switch to a more learner-centered model, this was unfortunately the reality. Learners were falling further behind and not finding the community they needed to be successful. West Ada Academies set out to find what other schools were doing to create community and make learning available for all learners, not just those who fit in already in a traditional academic setting.

The Move to Mentoring

After visiting innovative and learner-centered schools on the cutting edge of this work, the team decided to implement a mentoring model based on the programs of Bronx Arena and Building 21. Mentoring functions differently than homeroom, advisory classrooms , or study halls typically seen in traditional schools. Under mentoring, students would have a time block in the day to meet with their adult in the building, called a mentor, and other mentees in their group to ensure they were seen and known. The mentor would become the first point of contact for the student to communicate to others and to champion the student toward success. The student would be a member of the mentor group with fellow mentees until they graduated. The promise of mentoring was every student would be seen and known.

Since implementing mentoring as the foundation in the West Ada Academies, it has shifted the reality of our schools. Mentoring now elevates our community and drives student success.

Mentoring At-A-Glance

Mentoring can and will look different in every group:

 In one room, calm and gentle music plays and students sit in chairs arranged in a circle. Amber, a fourth-year mentor, calls all to the circle. They pass a talking object around to share how their week was going. The responses are different, but mentees are willing to share and be vulnerable. Amber shares as well.

Down the hall, the students are lively and buzzing with energy. Jake, an eighth year mentor, blasts a quiz on the projector screen. Mentees are furiously guessing as the countdown clock shows less than five seconds to go.

Across the building, a mentor teaches a lesson on self-advocacy. There are one-on-one discussions between a single mentee and the mentor on progress while other students are making goals and choices of how their week will look.

All of these stories represent the depth and breadth of mentoring. It is truly personalized to the learners within the mentoring group and the day can look different depending on the needs of each learner.

The Resources to Do Well

As mentors of the West Ada Academies, teachers have a responsibility to facilitate these types of community-centered mentoring groups. It takes intentional planning, creativity, collaboration, vulnerability, and empathy. Being a great mentor is not something most teachers are trained on during their college years, district professional development, and certainly not through a quick Google search.

Author and speaker Simon Sinek discusses just how hard building relationships in the modern world of technology can be in The Millennial Question:

“Everything you want [you can have now because of] instant gratification except job satisfaction and strength of relationships. There ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes”

This mentoring work takes time to get right and feedback to improve. Mentors need clarity around expectations, boundaries, and resources available so each mentor feels equipped for success.

And mentees need the very same things.

Mentoring Competencies

Jim Knight, instructional coaching expert, says, “To be the educators we want, we have to get a clear picture of our current reality.” There are ways we can get clarity as mentors: coaching cycles, video, student data and more; but perhaps the most effective way is self-reflection using the teacher competency of Mentoring.

Building 21 Teacher Competencies contain a set called Mentoring that highlight the skills a teacher can grow in to be a successful mentor. Skills are broken down by level (Novice to Expert) and include:

  • building and nurturing trusting and meaningful relationships with students and families
  • building community and ownership in their mentor group
  • helping students progress through monitoring data, intervening, and having conferences
  • providing opportunities and experiences in personal development and Habits of Success and support post-secondary planning

By embracing the mentoring competencies outlined by Building 21, our mentors are equipped with the skills to nurture relationships, empower our students, and guide them toward their academic and personal growth. The mentoring competencies allow for transparent expectations across the school and grade levels, as well. This continuity helps students better understand the trajectory of their learning and helps mentors plan effectively.

Through this type of personalized mentorship, students now have a dedicated time and space to connect with their mentors and peers, fostering trust and meaningful relationships. The diverse approaches to mentoring reflect the unique needs and goals of each learner, ensuring that no student feels inconsequential or isolated in our school communities.

In Part II of Mentoring: The Why, What, & How, we’ll learn how relationships, routines, rituals, and systems create a vibrant culture of mentoring.

If you would like a preview of our teacher competencies, please go here to download your copy.

If you’d like to request a free consultation with Building 21 to see how we can help you foster cross-curricular collaboration, please reach out to us here.

Julia Miller

Julia Miller has been a teacher and instructional coach in the West Ada School District for eight years. She has a passion for learner-centered systems. You can contact her at

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Kaela says:

    What a beautiful blog. Mentoring and relationship-building is such a huge part of the success of students.

    Thank you Julia!!

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