Toward the end of last year, my colleagues were writing wrap-ups to the decade and providing strong analysis of what had been won or lost in our education debates. But I couldn't bring myself to chime in—it had started to feel that endless debating of school policy was only becoming part of the problem.
For once, I followed the rule, "only speak if you can improve upon the silence."
Instead, the week before Christmas I had the opportunity to stand before three classes of fourth and fifth graders at my neighborhood school. It was career day, an annual opportunity for parents and community members to help students see the occupational possibilities for their future.
It was a brain cleanser to see the kids up close, to hear their questions and to marvel at the way they form their ideas. Being with kids and seeing them in their school environment, engaging with youth who still believe anything is possible—it reminded me about why activism in education is so worth it. Kids deserve everything we can do to make sure they are free to learn, free to grow and free to thrive the best they can.
Not some of the kids, but all of them.
In the short time I spent in their classrooms, I saw reason to be humbled and to feel blessed. Some of the kids were shy, and drawing them out was challenging. Some of them were disinterested but polite. Some were enthusiastic on level 10. None were saints, but all of them were precious in their own way.
Teachers see this every day of their work lives. They engage with the future directly, day after day—as many of us talk about education, write about it and think about how it can work better.
Parents, for their part, also wake up every day with this on their minds, thinking about the work we must do for our kids to achieve every morning as we entrust them to schools.
But, what can good people, concerned members of the community beyond teachers and parents, do to contribute to the successful raising of a nation of healthy children?
I'm glad you asked.
This is a good time to answer the question, "What can I do to make the world better for children?" because it's National Mentoring Month.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then this is the best time for us to commit to being good villagers. In this new year, and new decade, perhaps we can find a new commitment to contributing to one nation, indivisible, by focusing on youth.
Lofty, but at a time when political atomization has grabbed hold of the better angels, maybe the simplest of actions and the smallest of steps can go a long way toward repairing society.
Mentoring is a rare point of connection between people who rarely share space together. When Americans show up for mentoring youth, they usually do so across lines of class and race in a way that few other activities can offer. It's possibly one of the last remaining areas of nearly universal agreement in our left-right-black-white world. We all do better when our kids do better, right?
Studies continually find a range of positive benefits for children who have mentors, including better behavior overall, better attitudes, school attendance, graduation rates and college enrollment. If you want to make a difference in the world, this is one way to make it so.
And yet, not every child who needs a mentor has one.
According to the organizers of National Mentoring Month, one-third of young people grow up without a mentor. That amounts to 9 million unmentored youth who could benefit from a caring, knowing person in their life to help them discover the practical possibilities of life.
I don't want to oversell mentoring here. It's not a cure-all. If you enter it thinking you're going to have a rad, Michelle Pfeiffer "Dangerous Minds" moment where your mere presence redirects wanton youth into better lives by the end of a half-hour episode, sorry.
It's not going to happen.
It's easy to sign up to be a mentor, but harder to truly commit to it for the long haul. At any given time, I have multiple mentoring relationships going and it's real work if you take it seriously.
It's also the most rewarding thing I do.
At the beginning of 2020, I can't top the wisdom others have shared about the ins and outs of education victories and setbacks. I haven't returned from the holiday break with the cure for stasis in education. But in times when battles seem intractable, I find comfort in the simplest of things. For now, that means keeping children in focus and contributing to them directly—while very smart people argue about the best ways to fund and execute on their schooling.
While adults hammer that out, let’s make sure people of good faith—people just like you—are showing up in the lives of kids who need champions.