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Mentoring: Being the world to one person

Posted: January 23, 2013 - 1:00am

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but during his State of the State speech last week Gov. Sean Parnell set a bold educational goal for Alaska. He wants to improve the graduation rates in our public schools to 90 percent by the year 2020. And as he said when touting the success of his Alaska Performance Scholarship program, it’s aimed at helping our children achieve their dreams. To truly know their dreams though means we should set aside the pursuit of statistical accomplishments and see them as individuals through the eyes of a mentor.

Based on the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education, no state has a graduation rate as high as the 90 percent goal set by Parnell. Only three reported figures below Alaska’s 68 percent. While seeking to improve that record is laudable, a top-down approach to motivate students to stay in school can only go so far. If we examine why our system fails to inspire almost a third of our young people to get their high school diploma we’ll recognize the role we non-educators can play.

It’s quite evident that classroom learning doesn’t work well for every student. And as the teacher-to-student ratio goes up, more of those students will be left behind. Simply stated, some students need to be in a one-on-one learning environment to become successful.

We should also examine the impact of expecting everyone to become proficient in the wide range of content standards being taught. For instance, consider a student innately talented in the performing arts who has tremendous difficulty learning complex mathematics such as algebra and geometry. To succeed in those classes he’s going have to invest more energy overcoming his weakness while leaving less time to nurture his love of acting.

The point here isn’t that schools should cater to everyone’s special interest, but from the perspective of some students, their teachers don’t seem interested in the reality of their dreams. This is where mentoring has a role. And every adult has the potential to be one.

For starters, mentoring can help students chose to stay in school and work harder toward their dreams. George W. Bush recognized this in 2002 when, by presidential proclamation, he established January as National Mentoring Month. Following that young tradition, President Obama stated this month that mentors can “help to build young people’s character and confidence, expand their universe, and help them navigate a path to success.”

Character and success evoke the subtitle “In Search of Character and Calling” from James Hillman’s best selling book “The Soul’s Code.” The founder of archetypal psychology who passed away a year ago, Hillman believed the clues to discovering our unique purpose in life can be found through myth and imagination. In his book he researched dozens of famously successful people from all walks of life and analyzed the individual paths they took to get there. Some seemed to be societal outcasts heading to obscurity until a powerful mentor help them reset their compass.

“Mentoring” Hillman wrote “begins when you fall in love with the fantasy of another.” Fantasy here isn’t of the fairy tale variety. Nor is it a reference to unrealistic ambitions. Rather it’s the way a person exhibits talent and genuine love of a particular craft. For instance, imagine picking up the journal of a 10-year-old and being stunned by the quality and complexity of their writing. The child’s affection for language is genuine and she may dream of being an author or journalist. And if you’re a writer you may be drawn to love their potential that you’ve just discovered.

A mentoring relationship could be invaluable for a student not suited to a classroom focused on standardized learning. It may greatly enhance the educational experience of children already succeeding in school. And although he didn’t say it last week, connecting students with mentors is part of Governor Parnell’s broader vision.

Every child has a dream. Few of us adults are dreamers though. Real life experience has clouded many a vision with pragmatic doubts. A mentor can help lift a hope filled youth above that limiting world and together they might reach for the top of the sky.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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