Young adults are amazing. I am inspired every day by their love of learning, their energy, and their ability to make the most out of any situation. As a middle level educator, I get the joy of watching students blossom in many ways. During these formative years, I watch students transform from awkward ducklings into confident swans on a daily basis. Finding ways to encourage and foster that growth is a fundamental part of the work we do as educational leaders, and quite frankly, one of the best parts of my job. The growth of our school’s mentoring program has provided new opportunities for our students to grow, give back to our community, and build relationships with the students who will be joining us in the coming years. 

It all started with a brainstorming session on how we could provide more community service opportunities for our AVID students at Dexter McCarty Middle School. One of the foundations of AVID, a college and career readiness program, is to get students thinking about how they can get involved in service learning and community projects. We noticed that students loved coming back to our middle level school to complete job shadowing projects while in high school, and they always wanted to come visit and help out their teachers on days they had off from school. So we floated the question, what if we provided a structure that allowed our middle level students to give back to their elementary communities?

We are fortunate in that we essentially share a campus with one of our feeder elementary schools, so it only took a few conversations between building leaderships and my AVID elective teacher to develop a plan for students to walk over and volunteer a couple of Fridays each month during their AVID class. We had a rotating schedule, so any student who wanted the opportunity or experience would have a chance to participate. It was awesome. Middle level kids played with kindergarteners on the playground at recess, they sat with and engaged groups of students in the cafeteria during lunchtime, and they read one-on-one with students in first grade classrooms. It was the beginning of a wonderful partnership that has grown and evolved over the years.  

In more recent years, we have expanded this opportunity beyond the students in our AVID classroom. We now offer “Middle School Mentor” as an elective for our eighth grade students, and approximately 25 students each year choose it as one of their elective offerings.

This partnership has been twofold. It has allowed our middle level students to act as leaders and give back to a community that many of them grew up in, as well as build relationships with the students that will be walking through our doors in just a few short years. The elementary students view our students as helpful mentors rather than scary big kids. It helps ease the transition from elementary to middle level, and it gives students some familiar and friendly faces on campus. We have utilized our mentors to present to fifth grade classes about the transition from fifth to sixth grade, and also to help prepare them for the changes that come along with moving up to a middle level school.

For our middle level students, mentoring has provided an opportunity to show compassion, develop a sense of pride in giving back to our community, and build a skillset in problem-solving and interpersonal relations. It’s a positive way for them to maintain relationships with some of their former teachers, and we have seen some of our students find success and thrive in ways that may not otherwise show up at school. We’ve even had a few students who have decided that they want to pursue a career in education after having an opportunity to work with and mentor students in the elementary classrooms! 

I don’t know what all this will look like as we return to school post-pandemic, but students need opportunities to feel important, valued, and to shine, which is why I am so grateful for the collaborative partnership that we have developed, I am hopeful that we will continue to increase our capacity and build stronger and continued camaraderie with our friends next door. 

About the Author

Amy Nimz has been a middle level educator for 20 years. In her current role, she serves as the assistant principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School in Gresham, OR. Amy is the 2020 Oregon Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@NimzAmy).

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