I remember that feeling of going back to school when I was a student. It usually meant trips to the store to stock my backpack, counting out the right number of notebooks for class, and treasuring the precious few afternoons of summer left before the school year began.

Now, I teach at the same school that I attended years ago. As an educator for almost 20 years, I can relate to the excitement and nerves in my students as they start their first day of school. And for most of that time, I have seen the junior high students go through a particularly unique challenge as they transition from elementary school to Turkeyfoot High School.

As an educator, it’s my responsibility to ease these new junior high students through that transition. Last year, I became a mentor to 10 of my students, with dedicated weekly time to meet with them individually. It was the first time I had space during the school day to meet with each of my students and get to know them deeply - and it made a tremendous impact on their back to school experience.

Turkeyfoot’s mentoring initiative is part of a personalized learning program called Summit Learning that we implemented last year. As part of Summit Learning, our classroom experience is centered around real-world projects that teach students important life skills. Summit also emphasizes mentoring time, where each student has a mentor they meet with weekly throughout the entire school year, to check-in on their progress and help them set personal and academic goals.

Mentoring became part of my class. It didn’t stand apart as a separate time of day; instead, I would integrate my check-ins throughout class time. At the beginning of the year, many of my students were reluctant to talk to me. By May, that changed - the students were the ones coming to me with questions.

I remember one student who was an introvert with a quiet personality. She had a lot of anxiety whenever she would talk with a teacher. For our first several mentor sessions, it was a struggle to get her to answer questions. However, by the end of the school year she was talking to me freely, telling jokes or asking for help. In a traditional classroom, the quiet student who got good grades wouldn’t normally be where a teacher spends their time. Our dedicated mentoring time gave me the space to get to know her and help her open up.

Coming out of elementary school, my junior high students had had all of their core subjects (math, science, language arts) delivered by only two teachers. To go from spending their day with the same two teachers, to a wide range of teachers and classes in high school could be an overwhelming transition. We often saw a decrease in grades and an impact in behavior referrals in 7th grade as students struggled to adjust. Personalized learning helped ease that transition.

As part of Summit Learning, my junior high students had more control over their own learning than ever before. They decided how to spend their study time, what subjects needed additional research or when they were ready to take a test. That can be a daunting prospect for many young students. But my students knew they weren’t on their own - as their mentor, I was always there to provide support and to help them prioritize. That gave them confidence to be more independent and to take more ownership over their learning.

My students began taking on more responsibility, and needed less support. In a year that we often considered a tough transition year, my students were excelling. I saw so much growth in the capabilities of my junior high students, and the results speak for themselves. For the first time in my teaching career, not a single student was retained in 7th or 8th grade. Every student moved on. Our standardized testing story tells a similar story - students in the Summit Learning Program improved their test scores, and did better than what the MAP data predicted.

This year, for the first time, I’m not going to back to the classroom; I’ve taken on a new role leading curriculum in the district. But even though I won’t have any students, I will still have my mentor group. When they found out I was taking a new role, they surrounded my desk and insisted that we still meet regularly.The time I spent building relationships with all of my students as a mentor paid off. We’ve chosen a day where we’ll all meet for lunch in their classroom every week. For me, it’s the best part of going back to school.

Megan Barlow is a teacher at Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District in Somerset County.

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