In elementary school I had teacher by the name of Kory Roberts during 5th grade. He was a young African-American man, recently graduated from a local college, and was as energetic as any new teacher finally in the classroom could be.

I received good grades in school and even won some state-level art accolades. I was included in the MEGSSS (Mathematics Education for the Gifted Secondary School Student) math program and would attend one of the better middle schools in the state. But, unfortunately at the time I was also a class clown, a distractor, had a bad attitude and marched to my own tune.

One day Mr. Roberts, along with his assistant teacher, Keith Burton, decided to keep me from going to recess. As the class was dismissed I was beckoned to remain in the classroom. I flippantly heeded the request, plopping down in the nearest chair to the desk of my ‘captors’.

Mr. Roberts told me that I was a very smart kid, and that I impressed him many days with my talent and intelligence. I nodded agreeably, smug in my 11-year-old self-assurance. He bluntly told me that I was also pretty stupid. Yes, he laid that on me. I looked back agitatedly. He obviously had my attention, and quickly told me he would explain why he thought the way he did.

He watched me over that year and saw my successes but also regrettably saw all my failures. Mr. Roberts told me that he could outline all the instances, but he would rather ask me a few questions. He said that through these questions and my answers he could show me what he meant. In my haughtiness I thought I could answer any question he tested me with, so I agreed to what I saw as a game. He started simply by asking “where do you want to be in five years?” With a sly grin I answered that I would be 16, so I would be in high school. One question down, easy. What did he have next that would actually trip me up?

He then berated me with a slew of rapid fire questions that I came to find no answers for. What high school would I attend? Why did I want to go there? What programs did they have? What would I want to be involved in? Would I want to play sports? Which ones? How would I get to practice? Would I need a car? How would I pay for it, and the gas that went in it? What would be all the steps I would need to get there? I simply couldn’t answer these questions, and he asked many more…

Mr. Roberts told me that I was in fact smart enough to answer all these questions, but I was being silly and stupid by putting my energy toward shenanigans as opposed to the answers. He passionately challenged me to plan out my life in five years chunks and put any extra energy I had into coming up with all the questions and answers I could think of that could be asked on how to get there. He confidently assured me that if I could do that I could do anything I set my mind to. He backed it all up with a simply promise that he would continue to check in with me through those first few weeks and months to steer me where I wanted to go. It fundamentally changed my life.

This is the first story of a mentor being in my life. It had a very lasting effect on my life, as the idea of planning out my life in chunks became very helpful to a military lifestyle with promotion gates to make, key developmental jobs to fill, and posting to move to and from. Jean Rhodes, editor of The Chronicle of Evidenced-Based Mentoring, would define Mr. Roberts as a “natural mentor.” These natural mentors may not have any formalized training, but many of them simply invest in others via everyday connections. They can come in the role of a coach, neighbor, youth worker, family friend, or many other positions we come across. In my case, it was my 5th grade teacher. When researched and studied, many natural mentors may not consider themselves a mentor in the formal sense but they do agree that they conduct mentorship. Many mentees in Rhodes’ own studies indicate that they feel like these mentors simply “get them”, where mentees defined “getting” as having a close, accessible, personal relationship that creates a feeling of understanding with a non-parent adult. This is associated with a range of positive developmental outcomes including grades, school effort, purpose, and civic engagement. Interestingly enough, teachers are amongst the top percentage found to be natural mentors.

I told Mr. Roberts about his effect on me many years later, in my late twenties. He had moved on to be a principal. I imagined him at that higher level impacting many others as we shared some thoughts across a phone call. As I type this I realize that a phone call to him is long overdue. Last week in our blog we discussed the benefits of connecting with past mentorship relationships, even referring to an earlier message about how to do so. I am going to make it my business to reach out to Mr. Roberts this week, spark a conversation, and rekindle a dormant relationship. Maybe you have a story similar to this one. Is there someone you can find to tell them about the impact they had even if they weren’t an official mentor? What if you can enlist them to help with where you are now or where you want to be next? Who can you possibly reach out to?

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