This time last year, we sat down with Kelsey Welsh, a long-time mentor at the Josiah Quincy School who’s worked with the same two students for four years now. Shortly after the pandemic closed down the city last spring, their mentor match transitioned from in-person to remote. This week, we caught up with Kelsey to learn more about the adjustment from in-class to online mentoring.

Kelsey first met Kat and Anson during their first-grade year at the Josiah Quincy School. Over the years, they’ve built projects, practiced spelling, shared holiday cards, and spent countless hours in the school’s library. In many ways, she is the most familiar adult in their academic world. While their teachers may change every year, their mentor has remained a constant.

But as their fourth school year together approached, Kelsey learned that Kat and Anson would be split into two different classrooms. With the half-hour commute from work each way, she would inevitably have to choose one student to work with for the next school year. When the group said goodbye one March afternoon, this felt like the biggest of their worries. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The following months would serve as a reminder that a mentor truly does build a bridge between the city and the classroom. From advocating for a shy student online to battling the loneliness that comes with a quarantine, Kelsey can tell you that changing times call for evolving support.

From In-Person To Online

Before Boston Partners released official plans for online mentoring, Kelsey took it upon herself to make time for both Kat and Anson. “I was really worried the kids would think that I forgot about them.” 

She reached out to their teacher, got permission from both parents, and began meeting with Kat and Anson via her personal Zoom every week until the end of the school year. However, Kelsey found that one student continued signing into their Zoom even after summer began. 

Though school was over, Anson would regularly try to connect with his mentor. Kelsey would find him signing into their meeting at random times during the week, “I checked with his teacher and I kept talking with him during the summer and we did summer school together, too.” 

Even before the pandemic upended in-person learning, the role of a mentor was often equal parts academic and socio-emotional support. But the shift to remote learning has magnified the need for connection. Kelsey quickly learned her students just needed someone to talk to. 

“When Anson was logging on this summer, sometimes I wouldn’t even get a word in,” explains Kelsey. “It would be an hour of him excitedly talking about stuff. And that’s why I kept doing it – I just kept the time blocked out on my calendar in case he would call in.” When the new school year began this fall, Kelsey, Anson, and Kat transitioned into an official, virtual classroom.

Online Classrooms, New Social Behaviors 

In late September, BPS reopened for virtual learning and students joined large, online classrooms. In this new environment, Kelsey saw a change in her mentees. “I have the luxury of knowing what my students are like in-person versus what they’re like virtually… and there are personality differences.” She noticed that both Kat and Anson were timid in their virtual classrooms. 

“Online, Anson is not as outgoing with his class as I know him to be,” says Kelsey. “With Kat, she’s much more bashful this year too. It’s like we went back a step in that direction. Not everyone will understand that, but students are likely more reserved because they feel like this is weird for us all.”

For educators who haven’t experienced the personalities of their students in-person, it can be a challenge to gauge a student’s level of understanding. One week, the teacher let Kelsey know she wasn’t sure if Kat fully understood a concept in class. With this information, Kelsey logged on to discover that when it was just the two of them, Kat could confidently explain the lesson. 

“When we have our one-on-ones, she immediately knows the answers to the problems and I think it’s really a confidence and familiarity thing – there’s a comfort there.” Kelsey relayed the information back to the teacher, clearing up any concerns. For students who are hesitant to speak up in class, a mentor can also become an essential advocate.

Someone To Talk To

Kelsey stresses the importance of casual conversation and wants mentors to remember that every conversation is meaningful. “We might have previously encouraged people not to have too many personal or off-topic conversations from the assignments,” explains Kelsey.

“But right now I’d say… you don’t want to be something else that shuts them down in a world where they feel like they’re being shut down by everything.”

Off-topic conversations are more important than ever before. Now, when Anson wants to talk about a video game, Kelsey will let him spill his excitement. She’s confident that by letting the conversations flow, they will eventually relate back to school – like when a recent video game anecdote reinforced a history lesson Anson was learning about in class. 

“Anything can be tied back to learning. If your mentee wants to talk about something, try not to shut them down because they might not have someone to talk about it with right now.”

Kelsey has seen firsthand the loneliness that can come with remote work. If she joins a meeting with Kat or Anson and they seem upset or she can see there’s something on their mind, she asks about that first. “It’s not going to go away for them,” says Kelsey. “When they’re done meeting with me, they’re not going to walk back into their classroom. They’re going to stay sitting there and exit out of this window and open up another.”

“They need academic support but they also need personal support – as all of us do.”

The Future of Mentoring

While the shift to online learning presents some challenges, it provides advantages, too. No longer held back by train schedules or commute times, mentors can simply log onto their computers and meet with  BPS students. 

In recent months alone, Boston Partners has seen a 75% increase in volunteer applications. The flexibility of online support means there’s a chance that more students can receive the additional support they need, whenever they need it most. In Kelsey’s case, she can volunteer two hours of her week instead of just one. “If we were still in person, I would’ve had to pick one student”, explains Kelsey. “Being remote enables me to take an hour, virtually, to meet with each of them every week.”

We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to reach more students through our new Independent Learning Support model, as well, which enables mentors to support their students outside of school hours. Traditionally, the process for identifying students for our programs has relied exclusively on teacher nominations. Now, BPS families can nominate their children for mentor support. 

“When I first learned about Independent Learning Support, where families can nominate students for a mentor, I thought, ‘wow,’ says Kelsey. “For the foreseeable future, even when kids [physically] go back to school, it’s going to be so important because this is a huge developmental change.”

While the future of on-site work remains unknown, online mentoring gives Kelsey some certainty about her role as a mentor moving forward. “After this, I don’t know what work will be like, but it might be a blessing and a turning point for how I can proceed with Kat and Anson. In the future, I can stay with both of them.”

To learn more about Independent Learning Support, click HERE