Podcast: Students Mentoring Students - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Students Mentoring Students

Students Mentoring Students

Learn about a well-established program that has senior students serving as mentors to incoming freshman. Terrence Johnson, the designer and implementor of the program at Cumberland Regional High School in NJ, provides details around the program’s elements. Alumni mentors return as part of new mentor training and share their experience of the program’s lasting impact on them post high school. As you listen, consider insights for initiating or strengthening your programs.

Read about the program here.
Connect with Terrence Johnson: johnson@crhsd.org

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:01.450] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:28.980] – Steve

Students mentoring students. Joining the podcast today is Terrence Johnson, the assistant principal at Cumberland Regional High School in New Jersey and a past New Jersey Assistant Principal of the Year. I invited Terrence to our podcast after reading an article that described a students as mentor program that he had initiated. That’s an area that’s of special interest to me, and I’m so glad that he agreed to join us. So welcome, Terrence.

[00:00:58.480] – Terrence

Thank you very much.

[00:01:00.300] – Steve

I’m wondering, for starters, if you’d just tell us a little bit about Cumberland Valley High School and your tenure there.

[00:01:09.040] – Terrence

Yeah. The Cumberland Regional High School is a rural high school. It’s a regional district. So we service six sending districts. So we don’t have a universal middle school that just sends their kids to us. We’re a regional district. I have been there for 16 years now. I have been in administration for 20 years, and I’ve been in education for 30. I started off my educational career as a Phys. Ed teacher in school District named Bridgeton. Bridgeton is ten minutes away from Cumberland. And interesting enough, before Cumberland Regional existed, all the students that went to Bridgeton actually were students that were in Cumberland regional districts also. And then what Bridgeton did was, the outer region of its district, it developed its own school, which was Cumberland Regional. But when I started teaching in Bridgeton, I was a health and Phys. Ed teacher for elementary, and I coached high school football. And then my college background is I actually had a full football scholarship to the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. I played football there, and I graduated in 1992. So I was ten years in teaching and coaching, and then I’ve been in administration for 20 years.

[00:02:29.900] – Steve

I’m going to be anxious to uncover here how that history and background connects to the mentor program that you put together. I just got some ideas flying through my head.

[00:02:43.420] – Terrence

There’s a lot of connections. Yeah.

[00:02:47.040] – Steve

So what was the motivation that led to the initial design of the mentor program?

[00:02:57.540] – Terrence

So it’s interesting. So we started the program – it must have been at least 13 years ago now. Our current superintendent, his name was Bill Stonis, he passed away a couple of years ago, but he approached me during the summertime and he says, Terrence, “I want you to start a mentoring program.”

[00:03:12.300] – Terrence

That’s all he told me.

[00:03:16.010] – Terrence

I’m like, “okay,” that’s all he said. And so he actually wanted me to start the program that fall. And I’m a person that is huge in preparing because I feel like if you don’t really prepare well for something, that you’re not going to do well.

[00:03:34.220] – Terrence

So my current principal at the time, his name was John Mitchell, he was probably the most influential administrator I’ve ever had as an administrator. And we were at a workshop and a gentleman from Lindenwald High School was putting on a presentation on a mentoring program that they had at their high school and it was called Freshman Seminar. And I was sitting next to our building principal, and he wrote next to it, on a little post-it note, mentoring. We didn’t even go to the workshop with the intention of learning know looking for a mentoring program. It kind of almost fell into our lap.

[00:04:21.760] – Terrence

So I immediately got in touch with the gentleman and I got his information after the workshop and the more I talked to him about it, Lindenwald had this program called Freshman Seminar, where they actually serviced all of their freshmen.

[00:04:33.860] – Terrence

It was a group, one school, so they serviced all their freshmen, and it was an actual character education class where they had approximately 20 to 25 freshmen in each section. And they had senior mentors that were in the classes with the students. And their sole purpose was to be in a class with them and to help the freshmen in their transition in the high school, socially, intellectually, and emotionally.

[00:04:50.040] – Terrence

And I thought, man, this sounds like something that we should look into. So I convinced my administration and my superintendent, can I put together a committee and can I really do my research for the next year? So

[00:05:12.400] – Terrence

So what I did was, I put together a committee at the time I got our director of curriculum, he actually is the principal of the CC Tech School now in Cumberland County, Greg McGraw, he was our director of curriculum. We actually, at the time, had peer leadership teachers at our school. And I was actually pretty close with our peer leadership teachers because when I would have bad days and I kind of felt like I was being inundated with discipline, I would go and sit in the peer leadership classes to just be around positivity and positive students and character. So I got those two teachers and a couple other teachers that were just really invested in students and also a parent. So we put together a committee and we actually went and visited Lindenwald once a month for a whole year and we would stay for an entire day.

[00:06:06.530] – Terrence

We would sit in on classes. We would interview mentors, interview mentees, interview teachers, interview the curriculum advisors, and we prepared. So after the full year, we actually started freshman seminar that next year. We didn’t have enough teachers to service all of our students so we started off servicing three sections of students.

[00:06:34.680] – Terrence

I definitely didn’t want this course to be a course for students, a behavioral course. So what we did was we targeted students that were academically at risk.

[00:06:42.750] – Terrence

So I created a criteria and I intentionally did not look at the student’s behavior at all. So if a student was partially proficient in math and language arts and the state standardized tests for eigth grade, if they were basic skills, if they were recommended by their sending district, and the way that they would learn about our program is our guidance counselors would go out and meet with their kids. So if they were recommended.

[00:07:10.180] – Terrence

And then we have this criteria for our rubric that we give all of the guidance counselors, give all the teachers and guidance counselors that are sending districts, and it rates the students in terms of kind of a subjective rating to determine how good of a student they are. And the highest score that they can get is an 18. So if they got a twelve or lower, they also would meet my criteria.

[00:07:41.600] – Terrence

So I had my secretary put all of our ascending district students for this criteria in a spreadsheet and I would select the students making sure that it was equitable. And so for the first maybe nine to ten years, we had three sections of 25 students. And we also had a very lengthy process in terms of identifying senior mentors also.

[00:08:06.260] – Steve

So I found it interesting when I read the article, and I’ll be sure to post the link to the article in the podcast lead-in so everybody can find it – but I found it interesting that it’s a course for the mentors as well. Would you talk a little bit about that?

[00:08:26.430] – Terrence

Yes, it is. And it’s interesting too, because initially it wasn’t an honors level course, but I was looking for our highest character and highest academic and students, not just students that are high academic, but students that were very involved and immersed themselves in our school culture.

[00:08:36.610] – Terrence

But unfortunately, if you’re looking for those students, those are also your high academic students. And over the past two years, I’ve had at least five students that were in the top ten ranking. So the question is, if I’m a senior, is this course going to Deter or lessen my ranking?

[00:09:10.140] – Terrence

And why is this course advantageous to me during my senior year? So we eventually were able to get board approved for this course to be an honors level course. And it is an honors level course. It is not academically rigorous, but I got to tell you, Steve, it is extremely emotionally rigorous because they’re not investing in inanimate objects, they’re not investing in a course. They’re investing in people and learning how to be a leader and to motivate students to be better students. It’s a very difficult task for a 17 or 18 year old.

[00:09:58.360] – Terrence

So, yes, it is an honors level course now. And it’s funny – five, six years ago, some of the students that I was trying to convince and recruited to become senior mentors, a lot of times those students, in the top five, they respectfully turned the course down because they didn’t want it to reflect their ranking. And that is slowly changing.

[00:10:26.570] – Terrence

I Had a student last year, she was ranked second. I recruited her sister, who was ranked first the previous year, and her sister turned it down.

[00:10:36.820] – Terrence

Her sister told her younger sister she regretted it, and this was the main reason that the younger sister decided to do it. And she, honestly, she was probably one of my best mentors. I had done a couple online presentations for NJPSA where she was a guest. I had a visiting school come and I used her as a representative. She was probably one of the best representatives that we had, honestly, for the program. And that’s one of her biggest stories, is that she was sitting on the fence and her sister had told her that she regretted not doing it. And this young lady did not regret it one time. So the reputation of the program is growing, and the reputation that it’s gaining is that it’s worth the effort.

[00:11:18.080] – Steve

So what do you identify as the key benefits for the freshmen who are being mentored and for the seniors who are being the mentors?

[00:11:32.240] – Terrence

So it’s interesting. You’re a parent, right?

[00:11:36.650] – Steve


[00:11:38.040] – Terrence

Who’s benefited more in that relationship, you or your son? So that’s a difficult question.

[00:11:44.790] – Steve


[00:11:49.600] – Terrence

So the more you invest as a parent, the more you’re getting out of it. But guess what? Your son’s getting a lot out of it also. And so statistically, I can give you all the statistics where your freshman year is the most difficult transition.

[00:12:01.720] – Steve

Yeah, I was going to say I’ve worked with that number for years.

[00:12:05.440] – Terrence

Absolutely. So that was the main reason that our superintendent wanted me to start this program. And so you have students that traditionally, were really good students in 7th and 8th grade, and all of a sudden they get exposed to all these adult things in high school and they get lost in the shuffle.

[00:12:21.540] – Terrence

So the analogy that I give is that if you’re trying to get from the beginning of the forest to the end of the forest, but like in the forest, there are a lot of different things that can trip you up. There are a lot of things that are dangerous. And if you can give somebody a tour guide that has gone three quarters of the way and done almost everything right and been extremely successful, but then They’re willing to turn around and go to the beginning and take someone who’s starting and I’m going to be your tour guide for this first quarter. And I don’t want anything from you, I want something for you.

[00:12:59.770] – Terrence

And unfortunately, a lot of the relationships that kids have in high school, they want something from somebody else.

[00:13:03.990] – Terrence

These seniors don’t want anything from their freshmen. They want them to be successful. They want them to experience high school and have a similar experience where they immerse themselves in the high school and they’re getting a lot out of it. And so I think that’s probably the best way that I can explain it. The freshmen get a lot out of it if they’re smart enough to take the help that’s being given to understand the intention of the person who’s given the help, and we help with that, myself and the classroom teachers.

[00:13:42.750] – Terrence

But then the senior mentors get a lot out of it because they learn the benefit of service – providing a service to somebody else and helping somebody else be successful.

[00:13:56.760] – Terrence

It was interesting, I try to stress to my senior mentors, do not gage your success completely based on looking for instant gratification and looking for immediate success out of your freshman. Gage it based on your effort.

[00:14:15.090] – Terrence

So I have one of my best senior mentors. She’s phenomenal. One of her students, one of her freshmen, unfortunately, a week ago, got in trouble and got placed in our in house alternative school from getting in trouble.

[00:14:28.540] – Terrence

And you should have seen how distraught she was. And it’s interesting because in my mind, I’m like, okay, that’s what it’s about. You invested so much and you’re distraught, but understand that you didn’t fail him at all. You did everything that you could do. And she’s one of my best, but sometimes the kids don’t respond.

[00:14:48.910] – Terrence

Now I’m in the process of setting up something where even though he can’t be in the class anymore, but I’m in the process of setting up a reward system where if he’s good in this program, for every two weeks, the two of them can meet once a week.

[00:14:59.480] – Terrence

And so I have this theory called the vending machine theory. And if you put money in a vending machine, you immediately expect to get something back. That’s not why you help people. You don’t help people because you expect to get something back. You help people because it’s right.

[00:15:11.410] – Terrence

And so I have story after story where the senior mentors and these kids are kids where they’re all about instant gratification and success.  I try hard, I see my success.

[00:15:28.130] – Terrence

Life’s not always about that, right? So they’re learning that valuable lesson. And the minute they start to really just understand, just keep on grinding and keep on doing what I got to do, they wind up getting their candy bar. In times where they don’t expect it. The minute you stop expecting it, you wind up getting that thanks, you wind up getting that appreciation, you wind up getting that reward.

[00:15:53.020] – Terrence

And so it’s interesting. My senior mentors write a weekly reflection, and it’s due every Monday and it has specific guidelines for each paragraph. But by reading them, you can really see exactly how their week went, what their triumphs were, what their struggles were. And I read every single one. And I meet with a lot of them based on some of the things that they’re struggling with, or sometimes just to tell them they’re doing a really good job because I think they need that support.

[00:16:36.830] – Terrence

So I can gage how hard they’re trying, what they’re doing, what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong. And it’s really not even about wrong because they’ve never done it before. So they’re learning about their own leadership skills, and they’re also learning fair is not equal.

[00:16:47.970] – Terrence

Like, what works with one, you can take a completely different approach and works with another. I have three children. My son graduated fifth in high school. My daughter graduated first. My other daughter is in like the top 25. And they are completely all different. My wife and I take a very similar approach, but we also have to take a different approach because they’re different people.

[00:17:13.300] – Steve

I’m impacted by the value of what your mentors are learning as they’re leaving high school and heading out into the world. That’s just a critical skill set for them to have the chance to develop.

[00:17:39.980] – Terrence

So they would be able to communicate even better than I would their impact. So I’ve had a lot of my mentors over the years, at the end of the semester, they write a culminating summative essay on their overall mentor experience and then sometimes I’ve had my mentors write essays on the overall mentor experience and I don’t even realize how much they’re getting out of it.

[00:17:53.200] – Terrence

It’s been really interesting, too. The past two years we’ve taken the mentors away two nights and three days for overnight training. And the second night we invite five previous alumni mentor from different years. And some of them are in college, some of them are professionals. Now what we do is we have pre-made questions and we have a formal dinner and the senior mentors of that current year ask the alumni mentors questions about everything. But we have the questions preset and pre-made and to hear the responses, the wealth of experience, it’s pretty humbling. It’s pretty amazing.

[00:18:51.140] – Steve

Before we wrap up, I’m wondering if you have a few words of advice or guidance for people who would want to look into starting a program in a school where it doesn’t exist.

[00:19:09.320] – Terrence

So it’s interesting. So obviously from my answers you can tell that I’m very invested in it. I could talk to you about the program hours. So I am very methodical to make sure if you saw, we have currently this year 25 senior mentors. Our senior mentors also look like what our students in our school look like.

[00:19:34.160] – Terrence

That is very important.

[00:19:35.650] – Terrence

Got you.

[00:19:38.400] – Terrence

That is intentional. I am able to, through our recruiting process, find students that maybe haven’t been recognized prior to their senior year, but Have been diamonds in the rough. And to see them flourish and to have mentors that look exactly like what our student demographic looks like is important.

[00:19:56.620] – Terrence

I would also say, do your due diligence and have a really high standard for the mentors that you select and make sure that they completely understand the amount of commitment that’s involved. Because the worst thing that you would want to have happen is have someone who signed up to do something and then somewhere along the lines they said, this is not for me.

[00:20:27.330] – Terrence

I don’t have that happen because we do a really good job of recruiting and making sure that we get the right ones.

[00:20:36.180] – Steve

So when you did your introduction, I said, I have a feeling there’s a connection to your past history and experiences and what you’re doing here. So I’ll let you respond to that. But as I’m listening to you, you sound to me like a coach who has his team of 25.

[00:21:07.100] – Terrence

I live with my 85 year old father, with my family. The reason I live with my father is because my mother passed away seven years ago and we decided to live it, move in with my father, so he wasn’t alone. My father probably knows me better than anybody and he says, the thing that you love more than anything is coaching.

[00:21:28.580] – Terrence

Even though I’m an administrator, I still help coach. I coach football at the high school, and before I got into administration at Bridgeton, I coached for ten years, and we won a couple of state championships. And coaching is what I probably love more than anything. So it’s really crazy that you said that because that is my passion.

[00:21:50.060] – Steve

You coach the mentors.

[00:21:52.690] – Terrence

I coach the mentors. Yes, I do. It’s funny, my first two years at Cumberland, I was so wrong. I said, there’s no kids of character here, and when I said that I was wrong. I didn’t get out and meet the kids of character, which is why I started going to the peer leadership classes, and I needed to get out.

[00:22:21.330] – Terrence

And what this program has done for me, it’s the very best part of my job. It has allowed me to develop these insane, close relationships with these high character kids that were it not for this program, I wouldn’t know them any more than their name.

[00:22:33.430] – Steve


[00:22:34.480] – Terrence

I wouldn’t know them any more than their name.

[00:22:41.410] – Terrence

And my relationship with them has extended neyond high school, where they keep in touch with me on a regular basis, like a lot of things. So, yes, coaching is huge.

[00:23:03.150] – Terrence

My dad grew up in Charleston. He grew up 15 minutes away walking distance from the Citadel, and during his day, blacks weren’t allowed on campus.

[00:23:09.460] – Terrence

So he and my mom had three sons, and out of the three sons living in New Jersey, two of us, my oldest and myself, had football scholarships to the Citadel. And so for us to be able to go to an institution that my dad would have loved to have gone to but couldn’t when he was a lid, and having that – it’s not an easy school.

[00:23:34.700] – Terrence

So it taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about character, and it taught me about, like, even with the senior mentors, we have an honor code. So at the Citadel, you have an honor code. We actually have an honor code where we have specific stipulations, and part of the reason that I have an honor code is because just the symbolism that you’re signing something, that you’re committing to your role and your responsibility. So, yeah, even after all these years, it has a huge impact on the way that I live my life.

[00:24:11.480] – Steve

Well, Terrence, it’s just been a pleasure to have the conversation with you. Before I sign off, are you okay if I put your email address into the lead-in, in case any of the listeners have questions?

[00:24:27.090] – Terrence

Absolutely. And I wanted to let you know that I was honored at the fact that you felt like my article was interesting enough for us to do this.

[00:24:34.850] – Terrence

It was an honor to do this today.

[00:24:36.610] – Steve

Well, thank you. Much appreciated on end.

[00:24:39.700] – Steve

Take care.

[00:24:40.450] – Terrence


[00:24:40.840] – Terrence

Thank you, sir.

[00:24:43.940] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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