One Professor’s Experience as a Mentor and Classroom Coach
As a professor of Social Work at the University of Texas, Robin Smith is dedicated to reducing the achievement gap. She has volunteered with APIE for four years as both a mentor and a reading Classroom Coach, and she wants to return each year as long as she can.
Initially, feelings of obligation pushed Smith to volunteer. After a mother looked her in the eye and told her she’d be a good mentor, she felt as though she should or even had to volunteer. “With my social work background, I thought I would have something to offer a child,” Smith says.
“When I found out more about the commitment I thought it was something very do-able,” Smith says. And she has found it to be a very rewarding, positive experience.
As a mentor, Smith worked to create a relationship with her mentee, building her up and acting as a role model. “The whole experience was about learning to interact with a kid who really wasn’t very social or enthused about the whole arrangement,” Smith says.
Smith took the little girl to the university open house, Explore UT, one year. “It really made an impression on her and she seemed to love it. I think it’s a great way to expose kids who don’t know a lot about college to the college experience.”
Smith found the mentoring and Classroom Coaching experiences “like two different social animals” but both extremely positive. As a mentor, Smith worked one-on-one with a girl, discussing social pursuits. As a Classroom Coach, she entered the classroom with a group of adults to tackle academic hurdles and goals.
The energy in the classroom is something Smith finds contagious. “The girls are lively and engaged, and their reading skills have improved,” Smith says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Although she saw definite improvement, Smith says there were also definite challenges. Last year, it was clear to her that one girl was dealing with depression due to nonacademic obstacles. “I wanted to use my social work skills to bring some understanding to her situation.”
Smith says that reading may have been the least of her worries, but she also knew she could do only so much since Smith was not the student’s social worker.
“I think what makes an impact is when you come to a child’s class every week, and they know you’re not going away.”
Although initially she questioned whether she should push the kid who clearly had other worries, given that she came into class just once a week, eventually Smith decided that even a withdrawn child needs some boundaries. Those help establish and maintain a relationship, Smith says.
If she could leave her students with one message, Smith would tell them to try to go to college. “I know that can be hard, but don’t give up on the idea. [They’re] definitely college material…” she says. “I want them to know they’re smart, worthy, and to continue getting their education.”
Connection to APIE
Not all organizations that use volunteers are so well-organized, Smith says. “There’s just a real positive feel about APIE that I like.” Smith has previously connected APIE to the Social Work undergraduate program director and continues to go into classes to promote its programs.
It’s so nice to have an organization like APIE in the community, Smith says. “I’ve learned a lot about teaching and have personally been enhanced by this experience” with APIE, Smith says. “It is a privilege to be a Classroom Coach.”