Students Teaching Students: Peer mentorship as a means of leadership
Experiencing a Breakthrough summer is like nothing else. Nothing can quite prepare you for cheering every morning in front of groggy middle schoolers and chasing the bus when students leave each day.
The summer after my junior year of college, I was lucky enough to get my first taste of the Breakthrough magic working as a teaching fellow at Breakthrough Norfolk. A year later, while job searching, I found the FAO Schwarz Fellowship at Breakthrough Greater Boston and couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity. I knew I wanted to work in education and wasn’t set on immediately jumping into the classroom, so Breakthrough seemed like the perfect combination of my interests; educational equity and an opportunity to work with youth.
This summer, I was the main director for the rising 9th graders at our Cambridge campus. Their last Breakthrough summer is special in that they all have leadership roles. I was nervous about making sure the leadership roles felt meaningful for students. One leadership role, peer mentoring, quickly became my favorite and led me to witness the Breakthrough magic that I had seen during my time as a teaching fellow. A number of 9th graders were paired up with different groups of 7th graders, the youngest cohort at Breakthrough. These sessions were loosely structured and were an opportunity for the older students to get students excited about different activities and answer any questions they had about Breakthrough. Witnessing these moments between students was remarkable. I saw students transform into confident leaders who were completely engaged with the 7th graders and happily answered all their questions about what they should bring for the camping trip or shared their favorite anecdote from Unity Day. After just one session, I would constantly get bombarded with 9th graders wanting to go to peer mentoring during their advisory. The 7th graders never ran out of questions and the 9th graders quickly assumed a strong leadership presence. Giving young people an opportunity to be leaders was powerful for their growth and positively contributed to the sense of community at Breakthrough. Breakthrough prides itself on its students teaching students model. College students teach our students in the summer; however, I was seeing this model go one step further as our 9th graders were teaching 7th graders. Providing space for youth to mentor their peers is a powerful way to strengthen community and build confidence in their leadership skills.
Seeing this in the summer led me to be more attuned to the ways Breakthrough programming could encourage peer mentorship for our 9th and 10th grade students during the school year. The HS After School Program is a space where students come once a week to work on homework, build strong organizational and study skills, and I have continued to witness and take advantage of opportunities where students can teach their fellow students. Whether that’s explaining how to find the asymptotes of rational functions, quizzing someone on their spanish vocab before their test, or talking about the best ways to communicate with certain teachers; one thing is clear: peer mentorship is powerful. I want to continue to find ways to facilitate peer mentorship in structured and unstructured ways to build confidence in our students that they can all be leaders and their own peers can benefit from their support.
As adults who work with youth, we should continue to think about building leadership skills through peer to peer mentorship and collaboration. Creating spaces and opportunities as well as encouragement for young people to mentor peers takes Breakthrough’s students teaching students model to a whole new level; one where students are empowered to see themselves as leaders.
Lauren Hurley is a second-year FAO Schwarz Fellow at Breakthrough Greater Boston.