Power of Relationships: Mentorship in the Classroom

A Research Study on the Effects of Teacher mentoring on Marginal Students

by Truman Hudson, Ed.D.


Students on the margins face many challenges and oftentimes lack the supports necessary for overcoming barriers associated with the various systems that influence their development (Kozol, 2005; Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Anyon, 1981). Due to their limited capital, these students’ voices are often absent in the areas of curriculum design and instruction (Noguera 2012; Norwood, 2006; Delpit, 1988). Moreover, in many cases, because the dominant discourse perpetuates the negative stereotypes that are associated with students on the margins, some teachers reinforce inequities that inhibit students from realizing their potential (Haberman, 2010; Freire, 1970).

By exhibiting the qualities of care and empathy, teachers can develop a safe space for student learning and expression (Noddings, 2005). In addition, intentional acts of care, guidance, and support can positively affect students’ development (Kawamura, 2013; Apps, 1996). Furthermore, student-centered teaching strategies that focus on engaging students in intentional relationship building through dialogue and action (mentoring) can aid teachers with creating environments that challenge societal prejudices while reinforcing student success (Hudson, 2013; Noguera, 2012; Fletcher 2005).

This paper explores how the actions of a teacher functioning as a mentor (the principal investigator) influenced the voices of students on the margins and their feelings of empowerment and engagement in the classroom. It is based on my earlier study “Investigating Student Voice: Embedding Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory in an Economics Teacher’s Classroom,” which was undergirded in auto-ethnography and participatory action research methodologies (Hudson, 2013). While investigating the research question “How does an economics teacher’s intentional actions of embedding Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems framework into instruction influence students on the margins?” I identified the following intentional actions as key to influencing students’ voices, engagement, and feelings of empowerment in my classroom:

  1. Teacher’s care,
  2. Teacher’s listening,
  3. Teacher’s addressing students’ basic and physiological needs, and
  4. Teacher’s engaging students in critical discourse in unmasking hegemonic structures.

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Demographic shits dictate the type of education and supports students in public schools will need and receive, coupled with a forever-evolving family structure, the development of new markets in the employment sector, and changes in socialization patterns and technology. Amid current reform efforts, much attention has been given to curriculum and practice, educational leadership, and facilities improvement as the means for addressing student development. Although we have witnessed an increase in the cost per pupil allocation via foundation, corporation, and governmental grants, too many students from low-SES communities are still underperforming (Noguera, 2012). Although the research, such as Kozol’s (2005), has provided evidence that argues for providing more resources for addressing the challenges that schools in low social-economic status (SES) communities face, changing the interaction between students and teachers should be given equal weight (Dods, 2012; Haberman, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Anyon, 1981).

A New Classroom Strategy: Embedding Systems Framework and Mentoring

Students are influenced by multiple factors in and outside the classroom. A review of Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) ecological systems framework sheds light on how various systems shape student development. According to Bronfenbrenner (2005) the microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, macrosystems, and chronosystems affect student development. Bronfenbrenner (2005) contends that because the five systems act as agents of the broader culture, teachers should intentionally embed the framework into instruction (Bourdieu, 1984). In doing so, teachers may be better poised to develop appropriate student-centered instructional strategies for addressing the needs of students on the margins (Noguera, 2012).

In a recent study that employed Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) framework in an economics classroom, I implemented student-centered instructional strategies that encouraged students to engage in critical discourse (Hudson, 2013). The aims of our weekly discussions were to assist the students with identifying and unpacking the hegemonic structures that influenced student development (Hudson, 2013). When I reflected on my experience with the students in the study, a common theme emerged: when I was willing to exhibit constant care, guidance, and support to the students in the study, many of the students stated that they saw me as me a mentor.

Further analysis of my findings suggested that my acts of caring, e.g., actively listening, intentionally following up, being responsive to students’ needs, and talking to students about their life experiences, established the pattern of student and teacher interactions that led to increased student empowerment and engagement in the classroom (Kiefer & Ellerbrock, 2012; Fletcher, 2005; Noddings, 2006; Bettinger, Boatman & Long, 2013). Moreover, in review of Schwartz, Lowe, and Rhodes (2012) and Dods (2013), the recursive pattern of interaction that is represented in my conceptual framework mirrors the types of interactions that are associated with successful school-based mentorship models (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Student Voice Conceptual Framework

Figure 1: Student Voice Conceptual Framework

The student voice conceptual framework informed my study on mentoring in the classroom.

Mentoring in the Classroom

A mentor is someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person (“Mentor,” 2014, para. 1). In carrying out the duties of a mentor, teachers provide guidance and support to students. Teachers as mentors also create caring communities that make each student feel as if they are important (Noftall, 2012). Teachers who mentor in the classroom increase expectations beyond curriculum standards and “dare students to define truth about a problem through language, dialogue, and pure research” (Brinkerhoff, 1999, p. 10). By operating in loco parentis, teachers as mentors are morally obligated to assure that students achieve the true goal of education: intelligence plus character (King, 1947, para 6).

Care and respect are key attributes of the teacher-mentors. “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (hooks, 1994, p. 13). Caring teachers are guided by a moral consciousness, which struggles “to create a just society” (Nieto, 2012, p. 29). In teaching students from low-SES communities, a teacher-mentor acknowledges that while her or his students may have limited agency to address social ills, the teacher-mentor has a moral and social responsibility to use her or his capital and influence to break down barriers (systems) that impede student success (Brodeur, 2013; Freire, 1970).

To determine the systems that affect students’ development, teacher-mentors must become familiar with the community’s history from social, economic, and political perspectives (Noguera, 2012; Schwartz, Lowe, & Rhodes, 2012). Walking and actively participating in community activities outside of the school is a suggested strategy for successful teacher-mentors (Noguera, 2012). Continuous dialogue with community stakeholders is another approach that may yield additional supports for students’ development in the classroom (Bettinger et al., 2013).

Teacher-mentors must also become attuned to their students’ personal goals and needs. To understand each student’s goals and needs, teacher-mentors must cultivate open and honest relationships with each student. The relationships should be built on the ethics of care and justice (Brodeur, 2013; Nieto, 2012; Noguera, 2012). While engaging students, teacher-mentors must also be transparent as regarding her or his strengths, weaknesses, and personal challenges that were overcome. Transparency empowers students to feel safe to openly discuss hard issues that may affect their development. Furthermore, when serving as a mentor to students, teachers must keep in mind “a teacher’s personal discretion is of utmost importance” (Noftall, 2012).


While investigating the research question: How does an economics teacher’s intentional actions of embedding Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems framework into instruction influence students on the margins?, the primary aim of the Community Economic Development Club afterschool summer program was to provide the participants with additional opportunities to engage in economics instruction. Based on my prior experiences with three students (Alis, Dionne, and Jared[1]), whom I had taught in a dual enrollment program at an underperforming high school in a high poverty Midwestern urban center, I engaged Alis’s, Dionne’s, and Jared’s services as advisors to the Community Economic Development Club. In their roles as advisors, Alis, Dionne, and Jared reviewed and provided input on the course design. Additionally, Alis, Dionne, and Jared assisted with developing the survey instruments, interpreting the data, and analyzing the findings (Johnson & Christensen, 2008; Weiss, 1994). Due to the value that this study placed on students’ voices, the autoethnographic case study method was employed (Mitra, 2010; Romo, 2005; Wharton, 2007). Based on Alis’s, Dionne’s, and Jared’s participation in two focus group sessions in January 2014, this study unpacked the students’ responses to six questions: (a) What is a mentor? (b) Are mentors important? (c) Do you believe that teachers should be mentors to their students? (d) Who are your mentors? (e) How did you develop your relationships with your mentors? and (f) How have your mentors influenced your development?

In analyzing the data, I carried out a two-step approach that included dividing the data into categories and identifying emerging themes (Saldaña, 2009).

Study Participants

The initial study was conducted over a period of three months (June–August 2012). Alis, Dionne, and Jared had backgrounds similar to the 30 African American students who participated in the Community Economic Development Club after-school project. Like the participants in the initial study, Alis, Dionne, and Jared attend a high school, The Arts On Jam High, where the majority of the students’ families met the federal guidelines for free and reduced lunch. Similarly, The Arts On Jam High offered myriad programs to the students and the community, e.g., dual-enrollment, parenting workshops, college preparation courses/seminars, mentorship, sports, and internship placements (Hudson, 2013). Furthermore, Alis, Dionne, and Jared expressed experiencingchallenges with issues that resided in the microsystem, mesosystem, and chronosystem levels of Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) framework.

Alis. When I met Alis in her junior year at The Arts On Jam High, she was a very inquisitive and engaged student. She was always prepared for class discussions and oftentimes served as a team leader and scribe for our in-class assignments. Alis is a highly motivated individual who seeks help when needed from adults, e.g., family, teachers, and counselors. As a second semester freshman at a “Big Ten” university, Alis wants to major in women’s studies. Alis is one of two children. Their mother, who was a single head of household, reared her and her sister. Alis’s mother emphasized the importance of academic achievement. Although her parents are divorced and live in separate households, Alis’s father was engaged in her development. Alis’s grandfather was also very influential in her development.

Dionne. I met Dionne during the fall term of her junior year at The Arts On Jam High. Dionne was a silent leader who helped her team create a powerful social-entrepreneurial project that focused on the assets of the students at The Arts On Jam High. Dionne was quite familiar with the latest desktop publishing software and expressed interest in the field of management information systems. Prior to graduation, Dionne expressed concerns about completing the FAFSA and passing the ACT. Although I was not Dionne’s teacher during her senior year of high school, she was comfortable enough to approach me to elicit support towards achieving her academic endeavors. Dionne is the youngest of two. Her mother is a social worker and is a single head-of-household. Although her parents are divorced, her mother and father are quite supportive. Dionne attends a Mid-Atlantic Conference university in the Midwest. It is her intent to major inHealth and Informatics and Information Management.

Jared. Jared is a bi-racial young man whose parents are African American (mother) and Italian (father). Jared identifies as African-American. Over the years, he has had limited contact with his father. He is the only child born to his mother. Jared loves music, travel, and international affairs. The summer after graduating from The Arts On Jam High, Jared went on a four-week European tour with his orchestra. Although he received several music scholarships, he selected to defer his musical career to pursue a major in marketing. Jared is currently a second semester freshman at a top 100 national university in the Midwest. Like Alis and Dionne, I met Jared during his junior year at The Arts On Jam High.


The data presented in this section are based on my reflections from my study “Investigating Student Voice: Embedding Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory In An Economics Teacher’s Classroom” (Hudson, 2013). These data also represent an analysis of (a) the results from my (the teacher) intentional actions to serve as mentor to students and (b) how my actions in the classroom influenced students’ voices and agency. Alis’s, Dionne’s, and Jared’s responses to the focus group questions (a) What is a mentor? (b)Are mentors important? (c) Do you believe teachers should be mentors to their students? (d) Who are your mentors? (e) How did you develop your relationship with your mentors? and (f) How have your mentors influenced your development? shed light on their perceptions and experiences specific to our teacher-mentor relationship.

Focus Group’s Results

In an effort to understand how my intentional action to be a teacher-mentor influenced student development, I facilitated two focus group sessions. During session 1 Alis, Dionne, and Jared responded to my prompts. I utilized the second focus group session as an opportunity to validate my findings via member checking. The following data are a summation of the findings from the focus groups:

Participants’ Feedback: What is a mentor?

  • Alis: A person who has wisdom about life and more experiences than the mentee.
  • Dionne: Someone with a lot of experience who is close to you and will provide you with leadership and a listening ear.
  • Jared: Someone who is older, a leader, and willing to provide guidance and help.

Participants’ Feedback: Are mentors important?

  • Alis: Mentors are important because they are quite influential on the decisions we make.
  • Dionne: Yes, because they help us develop direction and provide a good example of what can be.
  • Jared: Yes, but it also depends on the mentee’s receptivity.

Participants’ Feedback: Do you believe teachers should be mentors to their students?

  • Alis: I believe that teachers should be mentors because they are in a good position to push students further than they thought they could go.
  • Dionne: Yes, because they can encourage students to (a) do better and (b) push to do more.
  • Jared: Yes, because they can inspire and help students develop a picture of what they want to accomplish in life.

Participants’ Feedback: Who are your mentors?

  • Alis: Family (aunts, papa, mother) and you
  • Dionne: Family (aunts, papa, mother) and you
  • Jared: You, mom, and aunt

Participants’ Feedback: How did you develop your relationship with your mentors?

  • Alis: You saw my potential and wanted to invest in me. When the school would not give us books or technology, you advocated for us.
  • Dionne: You made connections with us by sharing your prior experience in the failing school district. You showed empathy because you knew our situation. You wanted to help us reduce barriers and cared about us succeeding.
  • Jared: You made a strong student–teacher connection. You were authentic and cared about us and where we were going and what we were doing. Based on your past experiences, you were able to relate to students’ needs.

Participants’ Feedback: How have your mentors influenced your development?

  • Alis: You have encouraged me to use my voice and exposed me to social justice (school system, money, banking). You have sparked my drive and influenced my (a) work ethic and (b) desire to want more for my community and me.
  • Dionne: You encouraged me to want better and do better than you. You raised the bar and promoted high expectations. Through your guidance and support, you taught us how to balance and push harder.
  • Jared: You provided us with a stable foundation and a set of morals and concepts that we can pass down to our children and mentees.


School reform measures must move from replicating broken practices in failed models to implementing strategies from successful models that are servicing high-risk populations (Noguera, 2012). Doing so will require a paradigm shift from the pedagogy of poverty to an ideology that unpacks poverty and requires teachers to get to know the students they service (Haberman, 2010). The feedback from the focus group participants suggests that my students and I know each other. My intentional actions to be a teacher-mentor not only influenced student success but also created long lasting relationships (i.e., community).

In my analysis of the students’ feedback, I learned students on the margins value opportunities to connect instruction to their lived experiences (Norwood, 2006; Delpit, 1988, 2006). Additionally, based on Alis’s, Dionne’s, and Jared’s feedback, I ascertained they valued my transparency and intentional actions to engage them in discussions on how I developed strategies to overcome the systems that impacted my development. Moreover, by sharing lessons learned from my life experiences, the data from the focus group respondents suggests I provided Alis, Dionne, and Jared with the support and guidance that was necessary for them to realize their potential (Schwartz et al., 2012).


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[1]In order to maintain anonymity, the students selected pseudonyms.


About the Author: Truman Hudson, Jr., Ed.D.

Truman Hudson, Jr.
Truman Hudson, Jr, Ed.D. is a social economist with more than 25 years’ experience in developing, implementing, and evaluating educational and community economic development projects. Truman is the president of DEXDesign Community Development Club, L3C, which is a Michigan-based firm that provides services to educational, nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental entities.Truman completed his Doctorate of Education with a concentration in Metropolitan Education and Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. While attending Wayne State University, Hudson received his Masters of Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Economic Development and Education, Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Service Agency Administration, and Bachelors of Art in Economics.He has previously taught at Wayne State University (Nonprofit Sector Studies Program), Wayne County Community College District (Middle College Program), and Focus: HOPE-Glazer Elementary Partnership. Truman has also lectured at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Truman’s research interests include (1) the value of students’ voices and perspectives in school reform efforts, (2) the roles of colleges and universities in k-12 curriculum development from an interdisciplinary perspective, and (3) the importance of social capital toward addressing the human capital argument specific to the African American males.

Hudson’s current research projects include examining (a) the impacts that student voice has on instruction and (b) how the access to capital has influenced African American students’ development in Detroit.

Truman has presented his research findings at local, national, and international conferences, including: Wayne County Port Authority Global Economic Development Conference, City of Detroit’s Mayor’s Conference on Community Development, University of Michigan-MLK Celebration Week, Michigan Affordable Housing Conference, Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness Annual Conference, American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Third World Press Foundation and Kennedy-King College National Summit on Black Male Achievement, and the International Conference on Teaching and Learning.