Through qualitative research, it was brought to our attention that high school students and teachers lacked a space to bond outside of the pressure of academic performance. With this idea in mind, a booklet for high school mentors was created. In it, mentors can find tips and resources to best take advantage of the weekly mentor hours to improve student’s wellbeing. Indeed, time is precious in the education system, and we found out that students find mentoruur a “waste of time”. The booklet is not meant as a fixed set of guidelines, but rather as ideas to draw inspiration from. Through games and activities, we invite mentors and students to engage in various conversation topics such as bullying, mental health, or else cultural differences. With this redesign we hope to strengthen the relation between mentors and their students and encourage a culture of sharing and understanding, so that students feel comfortable to express their personal problems.
Every child goes to school. Regardless of their ethnicity, race, regelion, gender or sexualtity. So, school is naturally a place where all kinds of people come together. That is why it is important that everyone feels at home. According to the Central Bureau of statistics, 24,1 percent of the dutch population has a migration background. In Amsterdam 54 percent of the population has a migration background (CBS, n.d.).
Non-Western allochthones start their school careers with a significant educational disadvantage, mostly in language-related domains (Gijsberts, 2003). Moreover, children of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands are often found in lower tracks in secondary school (Van De Werfhorst & Tubergen, 2007).
Thus, children of ethnic minorities are trapped in a vicious circle, where their ethnicity affects their educational performance and their educational performance affects them. With our project, we aim to break this cycle.
Moreover, ethnicity is not the only background factor contributing to lower school performances. In fact, it has been shown in a study that religion, marital status of the parents, criminal activity of the parents and the degree of involvement of parents with school performances of their children are all factors that can contribute to school dropouts (Traag & van der Velden, 2010).
From this empirical data, it seems clear that the personal lives of students have a great impact on their school performance. Some pupils are simply more disadvantaged than others. With our redesign we want to minimize the disadvantages, by making teachers aware that such issues exist. We chose the weekly ‘mentoruur’ as a platform to tackle this issue, as a better mentor-pupil bound increases school performance. Indeed, a study it has been found that mentors play an important role in reducing school drop out (Rooij et al., 2010). In another study it has been found that the bond between students and teachers impacts the motivation of pupils (Amborse et al., 2010) and increases school performances (Mantzicopoulos & Neuharth-Pritchett, 2003).
To gain more insight into this problematic, a field trip to Bindelmeer college in Amsterdam Zuidoost was made. We conducted interviews with various mentors and pupils and observed a mentor hour. Results from this data collection were fully aligned with the literature, and are important sources of inspiration for our redesign.
During the mentor hour we were invited to attend, we observed that most of the students were on the computer or on their phones or conversing with each other. In fact, there seems to be very little interaction with the mentor.
We interviewed various students and heard different opinions from them. One point that most of the students agreed on was the mentor hour was “useless”, as they usually did not do much in this hour. Moreover, according to some of our interviewees, most mentors are solely interested in the academic performance of their students, so that mentors would only engage in a personal conversation with students who are struggling academically. On the other hand, mentors and students did not have conversations to address students’ potential personal problems. When asked whether that is something they would like to talk about with their mentors, students expressed that they were open to it, but that there was no space for it. A specific case was that of a girl who was sitting alone. Through our interview, she opened up easily with us. She told us she felt alone and did not have many friends, and that she wanted to talk about her emotions and problems she was facing but did not feel encouraged to do so. This encounter reinforced our project to fulfill the need for a conversation time for students to express themselves.
When questioning how the students would prefer to fill in the mentor hour, a large majority said they wanted to do games and activities. This input was very valuable to our design process, as it allowed us to better understand what students themselves are interested in and how to best engage them in the topics we want to address.
A second step of our qualitative analysis was to interview the mentors themselves, as they represent very important stakeholders. Through those interviews, we came to know that mentors did not have specific guidelines for the mentor hour. As a result, the content of the mentor hour was left to each mentor’s “personal touch”, as described by one of the interviewees.
Most of the mentors declared that they mostly converse with students who are not performing well academically, confirming the experience of the students we interviewed. A few of the mentors mentioned that they tried to have a conversation about personal problems with their students, but these mentors said that they also experience difficulty having intense conversations of that kind. According to these mentors, some students could easily talk about the personal problems they were facing, while some others avoided these intense conversation and did not open up easily.
Finally, the head of teachers we interviewed also stated that because of the age gap between students and teachers, it can get complicated to converse and see the perspective through students eyes. He mentioned as an example the importance of social media in students’ lives, which is an aspect mentors might not be aware of due to generational differences. With this in mind, we incorporated social media and cyberbullying to the final booklet.
The booklet tackles topics that were considered to be important in today’s teenagers’ lives, both from the qualitative data we collected and from personal experience. Namely, there are 5 main themes that are addressed: “Cultural differences and cultural understanding”, “Social Media”, “(Cyber) Bullying”, “Family Situation” and “Gender and Sexuality”. Those themes are touched upon as discussion ideas, and can cross and overlap.
The booklet is structured around those topics, with each one containing some or all of the following rubrics:
This booklet was designed based on the input of students and mentors of the Bindelmeer college, located in Amsterdam Zuidoost. Mentors there were enthusiastic about the project and were very willing to improve ‘mentoruur’. Given the school’s investment in this project, it was thought of as the first point of distribution of the Mentor Booklet. Eventually, the booklet could be distributed more widely in Amsterdam and even elsewhere in the Netherlands. For this purpose, the booklet was designed in Dutch. The uniqueness of the booklet, the catchy layout and the apparent need for the booklet are all reasons why this booklet has the potential to be well-received and used by various institutions
The idea of this project stems from a simple observation: a student’s family situation and background is often not well known by teachers, which can result in misjudgements, misconceptions or even discrimination against students who seem to be struggling academically. It can be that a low performance can be misattributed to a lack of effort, when it is actually symptomatic of a difficult family situation. In fact, it seems like nurture can play a major role in determining one’s opportunities and performances (Tielbeek, 2019). For example, students with divorced parents are more likely to drop out of school (Traag, Marie & van der Velden, 2010). Cultural differences should also be taken into consideration: a study by Gijsberts reveals that ethnic minorities start their careers with a significant educational disadvantage (Gijsberts, 2003).
From a neuroscientific perspective, it is also clear that stress in teenage years is extremely detrimental to both well-being and academic performance and that it can result in mental disorders in adult life (Esther van Duin, 2019). As seen in our observations and interviews with students, family problems can be a source of stress, which is why it is important to have a space to discuss such issues if students feel the need to. That way, teachers can be more aware of what is going on in their students’ lives and respond accordingly to best alleviate their stress.
Moreover, from a societal point of view, it is very important that formal education does not limit itself to teaching academic fundamentals, but that it also aims to prepare students to become involved citizens. For this, a sense of belonging is necessary, which can be strengthened during the high school mentoruur. By offering students the opportunity to express their opinions and concerns, we want to make them feel listened to and valued in their school community. Such openness is beneficial for all students alike, as we can all learn from each others’ experience (Wessels, 2019). Active listening and empathy are crucial social skills to develop to contribute to society, and as such should be an integral part of formal schooling.
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