After four years of climbing, Colorado’s on-time graduation rate plateaued in 2015 at 77.3 percent. Education officials don’t have a specific cause for the flatlining rate, but there is significant evidence that shows having a mentor, or a caring adult in a school setting, significantly increases the likelihood children will be more engaged and graduate on time.
Mentoring usually refers to a one-on-one, supportive relationship between a student and an adult. It’s been linked to an improved connection to school, lower dropout indicators and higher achievement according to a 2014 report [.pdf] by the National Dropout Prevention Center.
A middle school band teacher may not be the obvious mentor choice. They routinely teach 60 students or more in an orchestra or band class - hardly a one-on-one environment. But that doesn’t take into account how those students behave. Many take multiple band classes, play different instruments, and even sign up for before or after school classes, adding up to more time spent with that teacher than perhaps any other.
“Teachers always remember the [students] that they spent the most time with. And it was always the ones that I had a hard time with that I spent the most time thinking about,” said Phoung Nguyen, the band director at Boltz Middle School in Fort Collins.
“The good ones don’t take much work. They work hard regardless. Of course you still remember them. But I’ll never forget working with kids and having them call me 5 years later after they had graduated, usually in the middle of the night saying ‘Mr. Nguyen, I just remember you, more than any other teacher because you spent so much time with me, you gave me such a hard time but I learned the most from you and I appreciate it’ and those are the ones that I still remember today, because they are the ones I worried about the most.”
Now in his fourteenth year, elective teachers like Nguyen — who teach band, choir or art — have another advantage. They can teach these students for years, building strong relationships throughout the student’s entire middle school experience.
The National Dropout Prevention Center found that the longer the mentoring relationship lasts, the greater the value for the student. Surveys show that if a mentoring relationship lasts more than a year, satisfaction from the student jumps from 33 percent to 67 percent, confirming that longer relationships are stronger.
Longer mentoring relationships also have a greater impact on students’ higher educational aspirations, leadership position goals and participation in volunteering.
Being an elective teacher does come with a price. Unlike a required course like math or English, students can drop out of band.
“A bad day is when I lose a kid. And that happens. You can be the best teacher in the whole world. But if you don't speak to that one kid, and that kid decides ‘well, I don’t want to be in band,’ or ‘I don’t want to work hard for you,’ and you tried as hard as you could to try to reach that kid - that’s a really bad day for me.”
But for the most part, they stay. Jocelyn Burnside and Erin Wilson both play trumpet in Boltz jazz band, which meets an hour before the regular school day — at 7 a.m.
“Mr. Nguyen chooses really fun songs and he teaches us a lot about jazz and improvisation. And so it’s worth it to come in really early,” Bernside said. “I’m definitely going to keep playing in high school, maybe not trumpet but definitely French horn.”
Both girls were inspired not only to try another instrument, but to try out for jazz band by Nguyen.
“He likes to make class fun, and he educates us in a fun way, which I think is important to know as a teacher. My brother when he was in middle school he did the same thing where he was in jazz band and I’d always see him leave and I thought, I want to do this,” said Wilson.
Creating these connections with students is why Nguyen chose to become a teacher in the first place. He was told by one of his own mentors, in no uncertain terms, that teaching was not a backup plan.
“I think it’s really sad when teachers say, ‘I’m just going to do this until something better comes along.’ To me, there is no job that is nobler, or more rewarding than being a teacher.”