For our second edition of Mentor’s Corner, I interviewed another Student Engagement Coach from DeKalb County, Georgia. Raven Heard is in her second year of being a full-time, or dedicated, Check & Connect Mentor.
Our interview began a bit late, as Ms. Heard had an urgent call from a student who had recently been placed at an alternative school. Ms. Heard now travels on a weekly basis so she can continue working with this student, but I was lucky that she could fit in time to talk to me while she traveled between schools!
I began our conversation by asking her why she applied for this position, and she replied:
“Initially I was a probation officer. When I got into the field I kinda realized it wasn’t for me, but prior to being a probation officer, I worked really heavily with the youth at my church, and I loved it! I was a youth minister and mentor, and I loved working with the kids. I worked with 8th thru 12th grade. It brought so much joy to do a service. When I took a step back and realized probation and law enforcement wasn’t for me, I said, ‘Okay what do I have a passion for? What job can I work – and wake up and be excited to do – every day?’ I heard about the Check & Connect program, and it’s similar to a school counselor, but I think it’s a little more hands-on. I saw the position was open, and it was dead-on what I wanted to do, so I applied for it, and got the job, and now I’m working in the field that I love!”
Curious about how she approaches working with Check & Connect students versus the students she has worked with in the past, I followed up by asking how this position differs from her previous work as a youth minister. She explains:
“I think C&C is a little bit different because the kids I worked with at my church weren’t high risk. [They] had good grades, they were doing really good. They had minor issues, but there wasn’t anything real severe where they were in jeopardy of dropping out or not graduating school. The kids I work with in the C&C program are in jeopardy of those things. Sometimes, initially, when working with [C&C] kids, they are really reluctant. They think they are in trouble. They really don’t want you to work with them. Once they get acclimated to who you are and they see that you are going to help them, then they start to buy in. It takes time to really build that relationship. Thank goodness for this program. We’re helping to get them right back on track!”
I inquired further into how she was able to overcome this reluctance when building relationships and she gave three key parts: Building rapport, letting them know that you can relate, and being consistent.
I then asked how she uses data in her work. She explains:
“We do data every week. Once I put in grades, attendance, and my connections, I will go and analyze (so from this Friday and last Friday) to see whether grades were going up in a class or down in a class. When I pull my students next week, we’re going to look at that data and say, ‘Ok, in this class you went from a 75 to a 78. Great job! Or in this class you went from an 85 to a 75. You dropped down 10 points. Let’s go talk to that teacher and see what’s going on. Are you missing assignments? Did you not study for a test? What was the issue in this class that you dropped down 10 points from last week until this week?’ That’s how you compare your data. And it drives your connections, your conversations with the kids, to see what they are doing well in and not doing well in on a week-to-week basis. I think it’s a great thing because you can stay on it week by week!”
While she sounds so confident in her work, I inquire as to whether she has had any challenges in doing this type of mentoring. She describes two major challenges:
“One is when you have a student who makes progress, and then they revert back to their old ways. That is very challenging because sometimes as a mentor it can be a little discouraging. The second would be trying to change the mindset of a child. I see a lot of kids we work with here in DeKalb County that come from a lower socio-economic status, and they come from backgrounds whose parents never graduated from high school, and graduating from high school isn’t a goal for them. No one is making it a goal for them so they just feel like they are going to be a product of their environment. But trying to change that mindset that [they] don’t have to be a product of their environment. ‘You told me you want to be a doctor. You told me you want to be a lawyer or a teacher. You can be those things. Just because you don’t have a doctor or lawyer or high school graduate in your family doesn’t mean that you can’t change that.’”
These are challenges, indeed! So, as Ms. Heard does not seem daunted by these, I ask how she handles these types of trials. She gives this explanation:
“With backsliding, I just simply let them know, ‘Hey. We all make mistakes,’ and that’s when I go back to put myself in their shoes. But we have to recognize these mistakes and let them know that this mistake is not the end-all, be-all. Because a lot of time these kids are used to people tearing them down, especially when they make mistakes. Like I said before, these are at-risk students. You can’t write them off when they make mistakes. Let’s recognize the mistake. Let’s take accountability for the mistake. Let’s find steps to move forward from this mistake. One of the biggest things I do that they love is when I have guest speakers come in and speak to my kids. I have people come in who they can relate to, who come from the same backgrounds as they do, and who are extremely successful now. We’ll have a discussion, they will ask [speakers] questions, and [these] kids just want to feel like they have someone who [they] can relate to. When I bring in these successful people from similar backgrounds they say, ‘Okay, if he did it, I can do it too,’ or ‘if she did it, I can do it too,’ and it gives them hope.”
I admittedly have goosebumps at this point! The work she is explaining seems both wonderful and taxing, so I ask her to tell me what keeps her going each and every day:
“It’s bigger than me. I think that’s my motivation. I look at these kids, and I feel like, if I give up on them, then that’s it. This is what I’m called to do. I have one student. She doesn’t like to participate. She’s very antisocial. One of the math teachers emailed me yesterday, and it was very, very small, but it’s big to me because I know where she came from. [The teacher] said, ‘The next time you see her I want you to congratulate her on doing something she never did in my classroom: She volunteered to read a problem out loud!’ It may seem so small to other people, but it’s so big for her because of the progress that she made. What keeps me going every day is that it’s bigger than me. It’s not about me. They look up to me; if I fail them, they fail. And I can’t fail them! I live in the DeKalb County area so I’m very cognizant of how I carry myself outside of the school building because they look up to me. So that’s what keeps me coming back every day. Like, I really love my job! I’m in love with what I do!”
I am so impressed with how Ms. Heard focuses on the little things with her students, and that she is clearly so aware of not setting them up for failure! The passion with which Ms. Heard speaks is so immense and mesmerizing, I ask her if she has any other success stories. She shares this one:
“One student last year, she was gang-affiliated. Her grades weren’t the worst, but I knew she wasn’t living up to her full potential. She was a C student, but I think that she had the potential to be an all A student. I think that, the consistencies, building the relationship, meeting about the grades, talking about those gang-affiliated things she was in, and just personal things in her life she started to realize she was making poor decisions. This year she has all A’s. And she cares about her grades. She comes in and says, ‘Ms. Heard, what are my grades? Am I missing anything?’ She talks to her teachers. Last year I had to kind of be the advocate for the students and talk to the teachers. This year I’ve weened them off of me. Now they go talk to their teachers about their grades. And I think that is a big thing.”
I then ask Ms. Heard what she would tell a mentor who was just beginning to work with Check & Connect:
“I would tell them to take it one day at a time. This job is very rewarding, but it takes steps. For me, because I have so much of a passion for what I do and for the kids, starting off I wanted to make a difference so quick, and when it wasn’t coming I was getting frustrated because I care so much. But then I had to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, it is a process. Take it one day at a time.’”
She goes on to add:
“I would also tell them to acknowledge the little things. We want all our kids to pass all of their classes, and in some cases, that’s just not how it’s going to work. But you have to give that kid credit going from failing all of their classes to passing 2 out of 4 classes, opposed to failing all 4. Just take it one step at a time, and one day at a time, and acknowledge the little steps they make. And that you are making [steps] as a mentor, too! When you’re not seeing a big progress, you kind of question yourself as a mentor, when really you shouldn’t! You just have to understand each child, and understand that it just takes a little bit more time.”
Before we conclude our conversation, I ask if there is anything else she does to help motivate and support her students, and not surprisingly, she has more amazing stories! She shares:
“Last year I did a “make-up party” for my girls. They had to get all of their make-up work from their teachers. Upperclassmen and teachers came and helped them with their work. Once all students completed their make-up work, a make-up artist came and did their make-up! We catered and decorated. It was a really good turn out!”
Additionally, she shared competency-building with her mentees:
“About two weeks ago I was focusing on professional development, career building, and social skills. I had Six Flags Over Georgia come and interview my kids. They gave [the students] some constructive criticism and positive feedback on how the interview went. And I think that built their confidence, and social skills, and gave them a sense of reality as well. And they loved it! Next I have Chick-fil-A [coming to] interview. So we’re going to see if they are going to take the feedback from the first interview with Six Flags and apply it with Chick-fil-A.”
Totally awestruck, I thank Ms. Heard for her time with me, and more importantly, for the amazing work that she is doing with her students! Keep up the great work!
See more interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors in the Mentor Corner.
About the Author: Jana Hallas, M.Ed., is a project coordinator and member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.
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