Mentor relationships boost productivity and confidence for online learners

Gone are the days of traditional classrooms and chalk dust. From sixth grade on, Michigan students today are just as likely to learn from an online teacher across the district, across the state, or across the country for at least part of their school day.
More students pursuing a wider variety of online course offerings means more flexible learning opportunities. But that doesn't mean students are going it alone.
In addition to a teacher, online students have a mentor on their side. Facilitator, advocate, cheerleader, and record-keeper, the mentor is a constant presence for the student, says Cindy Leaman, principal at A2 Virtual+ Academy, part of Ann Arbor Public Schools.
"They are the conduit who talks to the teacher, the advocate for the student, the person who says, 'Did you do your work?' The mentor sees all the pieces," Leaman says.
Online learning: Growing and expanding opportunities
In 2006, Michigan became the first state to require online learning in high school and today the Michigan Merit curriculum requires that each student experience one online course or integrated online learning before graduation.
"When we first started online enrollment, it was for an elite gymnast who couldn't be in school every day. She could do her sport and still be a full-time student," says Henry Vecchioni, 10th and 11th grade principal at Brighton High School, where online courses have been available for seven years. "Right now we have 270 enrolled to take at least one class, with 300-plus classes offered."
While some Brighton students study offsite, others work in a dedicated computer lab at school. No matter where they do their coursework, they overcome challenges with help from a mentor.
"Students can have time management and technology issues in the beginning with accessing their class. Sometimes they struggle with keeping track of teacher expectations, or asking for help at the right times — not waiting until it's too late," says Vecchioni.
Lynette Daig, an online mentor and teacher, works to keep track of, encourage, and communicate with students, parents, administrators and teachers.
"If I see that the students aren't doing something academic, I redirect them, or I spot-check their grade books in the Michigan Virtual University (MVU) mentor portal," says Daig.
In an increasingly online world, Daig says face-to-face mentorship is still critical for success.
"It's definitely an extra layer of support and more beneficial for the kids. They have someone who they see and know exists in person," she says. "It's calming for kids who get stressed out. We take a look at the challenge and work through it together. Knowing there is someone who cares is important to them. I don't solve the problem, but I ask questions to lead them to the solution. They develop that skill to fall back on."
Daig, who received the first Mentor of the Year Award from MVU, also coaches students to develop online communication skills for success in college and beyond.
As many mentoring techniques as mentors
Each district approaches mentoring uniquely. Some have dedicated mentors, while others fit teachers into mentoring roles where needed.
"Ann Arbor has actually developed a whole community of people dedicated to the online environment," says Leaman. "For example, a young man may be taking Advanced Placement Chemistry and his teacher of record is from MVU, with the content through them. Our science teacher here will supervise his labs and tests. It's more responsibility than just contacting him once a week — a weekly two-way conversation is important."
Keeping an active eye on how many times students log in, creating a pacing chart, and physically tracking down students when necessary are all important mentor roles, Leaman says.
Mentors model and enhance soft skills, too
An effective mentor will understand what motivates students to class completion and success. This is critical since online students are responsible for maintaining their own pace.
"The energy in an email or spoken communication can fuel or discourage a student," says Dianne Dudley, Community High School physical education teacher and mentor. "I have learned nobody does well under fear. They have to believe they can do it. I always let them have an opportunity for success."
Mentors support every stakeholder
Teachers, students, administrators and parents all rely on a strong mentor relationship with online learning, which remains a consistent presence throughout the school year.
Julia Dean is a senior at Brighton who studies online in order to participate in a competitive golf career, which keeps her on the road several weeks out of the school year.
"The mentor keeps Julia on schedule with her deadlines for each class," says Julia's mother, Lisa Dean. "[She] also keeps parents up-to-date on grades, progression of the class, and times Julia last logged in."
Brighton High School senior Margot Moffa says a strong mentor relationship with Daig supports her beyond the day-to-day online work.
"I think that establishing a mentor relationship will help me in the future because it is someone that cares about me that will help me grow as a person or student," Moffa says. "Creating a relationship with a mentor in college or in a job can completely change the experience or environment for the better."

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.