In a guest column today, Tyler S. Thigpen testifies to the power of mentors in changing lives and the need for more of them in Georgia.
Thigpen is a doctorial candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a resident at Transcend, a national nonprofit focused on innovative school redesign. Thigpen is a co-founder of Harvard’s Transforming Teaching, the former head of the upper school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a co-founder and board member of Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in southwest Atlanta, and a former Spanish teacher in the Gwinnett County public schools.
Earlier, he worked as minister at the Grace Family of Churches and led international development He holds a master’s of public administration from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Master of Theological Studies from Regent College of the University of British Columbia. You can follow him on Twitter @tylerthigpen
By Tyler S. Thigpen
We have all had mentors. It could have been a kindergarten teacher who hugged us, or an elderly neighbor who invited us over for hot cocoa, or a parent who snuggled with us and read us stories. Their impact on our lives may be subtle, but each moment taught us something about our worth.
One of my most significant mentors was Buddy Hoffman, who died recently after an intense illness. A pastor who uplifted and inspired thousands and thousands of people, Buddy was a larger-than-life teacher, friend, landlord, and eventually father-in-law and grandfather to our four children. He taught my wife, Joy, and me there are no limitations on what we can do — that our ideas and dreams may be beyond the horizon, but absolutely worth pursuing.
Once as we were leaving a hospital together, Buddy saw a tearful young woman struggling to move her ailing husband from a wheelchair into their car. Hospital staff had left them at the curb to manage for themselves, and the wife had neither the strength to lift him nor the will to touch him because he was in so much pain. Buddy walked straight to the couple, offered to help, enlisted me to assist with the lifting, and prayed for the family once they were settled in for their trip home. Talk about seeing firsthand how to treat strangers. Thanks to Buddy, I have more courage to face the pain of others and more empathy for people I don’t yet know.
Buddy’s impact, the size and caliber of his demonstrable love, has permeated my whole way of thinking. It’s what drives me to be a better father, a better husband, a better pastor, a better teacher, a better mentor. I care intensely about mentoring because it made me who I am.
Not everyone is so lucky. I was born white, male, and to a middle-income family. Tens of thousands of Georgia children weren’t born into privileged settings like mine. But it’s clear mentoring programs— introducing kids to clever new inventions, the joys of books, colorful paintings in a museum, the smell of oak trees — help children start to see possibilities for themselves they didn’t even know existed.
Recently, the 2017 Youth Mentoring in Georgia Survey—the first of its kind in our state—published its findings of 186 youth mentoring organizations in Georgia. This is a statewide collaboration that reveals the landscape, trends, and needs of mentoring and youth development programs in Georgia.
Survey results are largely positive, but there are still many challenges for formal mentoring programs.
On the positive side, two-thirds of these programs match mentors with mentees for a full school year, with a quarter of all mentoring relationships lasting at least 12 months. This is a critical part of mentoring: trusting relationships take time to develop, and Georgia mentors do great work by sticking with it.
Not only are mentoring relationships long-lasting, they reach kids from low-income families, single-parent households, and at-risk academic circumstances. These mentoring programs span the whole state. And best of all, the programs are boosting support for children in multiple ways: as mentoring relationships deepen, so does valuable input on a more comprehensive approach to preparing children for full, empowered, adult lives.
These programs are doing terrific work, but they need more help. More mentors of color are needed, especially as 65 percent of the young population served are Latino or African-American, and it helps to identify with the lived experiences of one’s mentor.
Mentors also need more support. An organization in Baltimore, called Thread, has a unique team mentoring approach: professional women and men work together in groups to mentor high school-and college-aged youth, who in turn serve their local community. This approach recognizes the need for mentors to continue having important conversations and feeling part of a community of mentors, rather than going it alone.
But the main takeaway from the Youth Mentoring in Georgia Report is a common one, and that is of limited resources struggling to address seemingly unlimited need. Shoestring budgets mean fewer programming opportunities, staffing shortages, and a dearth of structured mentoring relationships in parts of the state that need it the most.
The great thing about mentoring partnerships is the long-term effects. The more kids are mentored now, the stronger and more self-sufficient upcoming generations will be — a return on investment that means, of course, more mentors. At the heart of the mentoring, education, and youth development fields is the belief caring, empowering youth-adult relationships are foundational to the healthy development of young people. Put more simply, at the heart of mentoring is love.
When I think about Buddy Hoffman’s life, the number of lives he touched, the amount of love he gave, and how much that love compounded over time as it cascaded several degrees outward, this is how I see mentoring now yielding tremendous returns on our investment.
Let’s work together to make kids the center of a better future for Georgia by supporting increased funding, making donations, referring mentors — or developing trusting relationships with kids ourselves.
Tyler S. Thigpen has worked in district, private, and charter schools in Georgia. Currently he is a Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a resident at Transcend, a national nonprofit focused on innovative school redesign. Thigpen is a co-founder of Harvard’s Transforming Teaching, the former head of the upper school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a co-founder and board member of Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in southwest Atlanta, and a former Spanish teacher in the Gwinnett County, Ga., public schools. Earlier, Tyler worked as minister at the Grace Family of Churches and led international development in Peru in areas of healthcare, education, poverty reduction, infrastructure, and human rights. A husband and father of four, he holds a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Master of Theological Studies from Regent College of the University of British Columbia. Follow Tyler on twitter @tylerthigpen