Mentor Corner: Houston Barber in Winder, Georgia

Houston Barber, mentorI was able to catch teacher and coach, Houston Barber at the end of his day teaching 7th graders at Westside Middle School in Winder, Georgia.  He spent some time talking with me about his work with two Check & Connect (C&C) students he mentors before he headed to the Mountain alternative ed program, where he also tutors.

Could you tell me a little bit about your role, and your school?
The middle school that I teach at is actually the school I went to for middle school. I never thought I would be back here but everything happens for a reason, and I’m in my second year here. Things have changed a little bit since my time as a student. Our school is 80+ percent free and reduced lunch (and students come from some rough areas). We don’t have a lot of parent involvement, and having parent meetings is tough sometimes, but that’s a great thing about Check & Connect. We can bridge that gap to help parents come in.

How have you integrated C&C into the middle school?
There are 5 C&C teachers, who are mentors, and we each have two mentees. We stay with them for 2 years. All of them right now are in 7th grade so we’ll be their mentor again next year in 8th grade. Once a week during Connections time, and sometimes during lunch, I’ll sit down one-on-one with them and we talk about grades, discipline, what happened, and then how we can avoid that next time. I had a mentee come to me every day this week to do make-up work. I talk to him about getting his grades up. About every month or two, as a reward, the administration will hold a get-together for all mentors and all mentees. We went bowling one time, we went out to eat, and we played kickball one afternoon.

What appealed to you about being a mentor?
I had one male teacher my entire career in middle school. And the crazy thing is that he was the reason that I wanted to do better. He was one of the reasons why I wanted to become a teacher. One of my mentees doesn’t know his dad, so having me there to talk to makes a world of difference. So that aspect of it, makes me want to dive right into it and be a mentor. I am not just a teacher, but someone they can go to and talk to. I’m there anyway doing the same thing for my students, just not writing data down on paper. Being part of something bigger than myself is everything that I need.

When you’re getting ready for meetings during Connections or lunch, how do you prepare for the time with your two mentees?
I pull the data that I have on him – grades, progress reports, missing work – and we talk about what we can do to continue the good days and how to avoid the bad days that we have. We take it one day at a time. “Why did you only get a 1 in core 3 today? What happened during core 3?” And we talk about it, “Okay, well how can we handle that differently?” Talk to them about how to be a student because it’s hard for them to even learn in that classroom when they don’t know the expectations of how to be a student. That’s where the C&C mentors come into play. “Hey, let’s run through it again, I’ll be the teacher and you react to me a different way this time.”

How did you build trust with your mentees?
Last year I had one student in my class, and the other student I didn’t know at all. The first time I made a connection with both of them is the first time we spent time together outside of school. So I think that was the first time that they said, “OK, Coach Barber actually does want me to be better, because on a Saturday he’s taking us out to lunch and we’re actually talking about things other than school.” When they come to me, it’s like a breath of fresh air. On that Saturday, we didn’t talk about school, we talked about what they like to do. I asked about their hobbies, we talked about my hobbies, and I told them more about myself. They got to know me more.

Have you been able to build trust with their families?
The biggest thing is communicating with them. I talk to both moms about once a week. When [my mentees] stay for a game, I have a conversation with [their moms] right there in the gym when they’re picking up their sons. Or the biggest thing is when we spend time outside of school and I’ll come and pick them up from the house. We talk about what’s been going on at school. I spend time with the parents, not just the kids.  When my students see me at home with their mom and their little brother and grandmother who lives there too, they know I have a relationship with them, and that I really do care. I’m being a face instead of just being a phone call or a text message or email, so now when mom sees me at the store or in the school, she’ll know who I am.

What’s the strategy that you will use to transition your students to high school and exit your students from Check & Connect?
What we’re trying to do is not only have them for 2 years. I can let my students know that “Just because you’re moving on to high school, it doesn’t mean you’re leaving me or I’m leaving you.” The district wants us to go there [to the high school] after school, once a week. We’ll still say, “Hey, let’s go over what you’ve been doing, let’s go over your grades.” A two-year relationship is a long time for these kids. And losing that mentor, could set them in the wrong direction.

I’ve got one kid who’s doing a great job. All my teachers are like, he doesn’t need C&C anymore. The reason he’s doing well is because we’re there for him and supporting him. Let’s keep doing that. Last year in 6th grade, he wasn’t the best student and that’s why he’s in C&C. Now he’s one of the best students because of C&C. And the way that I’ve bonded with him is working. He still needs me and I need him. And we’re going to keep going with C&C. He’s not going to exit.

Have you discovered anything about yourself, being a mentor?
When I first started teaching 5 years ago – and some teachers still think this today – [I thought] these kids can’t be helped. But once I actually became a mentor, it was a whole new world. These guys do care. They want to be good students, they want to pass all of their classes, they don’t want to be yelled at by the teacher, they didn’t want to cuss and get in fights or get kicked off the bus.

As a mentor, it’s letting go of that perception that I have of a number of kids. And actually getting to know them and figuring out why they are behaving this way. As teachers, we’ve labeled them as an “alt school” kid, when we shouldn’t have because we have never given them a chance.

These last two years have really let me see that every kid does need a mentor. Not just these kids, but everybody. I needed a C&C mentor. It opens up your eyes. It’d be so nice if other teachers had kids that they saw on a different level. Some C&C kids have issues at home. Some students have anger problems, some have been abused. If we actually got to know them on a deeper level, then you wouldn’t do some of the things you did. So that’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned about myself and all kids. I used to [think], “that kid shouldn’t be here.” Well, not anymore, let me go and talk to him and see what’s going on because it’s probably a deeper problem that we don’t know about.

Thank you, Houston, for sharing about your experience and personal reflection as a Check & Connect mentor. We are also grateful to the Barrow County Schools and the commitment they have made to support the success of their students in those critical middle school years, and into high school.

Mentor Corner: Interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors

See more interviews of passionate Check & Connect mentors in the Mentor Corner.

Photo of Ann RomineAbout the Author: Ann Romine is a member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

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