Kristin Dockar has worked in education since the 1970s, firstly as a teacher in primary schools and then specialising in Special Educational Needs (SEN).
I first became interested in student mentoring when I worked with refugee and asylum-seeking pupils in secondary schools. My first mentee was a fifteen year-old girl from Afghanistan who arrived in Dover having fled the Taliban. Her family had nothing. I learnt that in Afghanistan they lived in a large whitewashed house with a courtyard fountain and grew roses, alongside melons, in the garden. Her uncle sold cookers, fridges and freezers.
My second was a boy from Vietnam, found unaccompanied in Hackney and fostered. When I met him, he was in a Year 7 class in a local school. I could see that he was not a Year 7 pupil; he had a moustache. He spoke no English but by using sign language and drawing pictures, he was able to tell me his real age. A clue was in his outstanding maths ability, and he eventually went on to university.
These two students taught me to have no preconceived ideas.
I soon realised I could draw upon own experiences in educational settings. I had worked as a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator), and for the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service in Essex. My personal experience was of attending university at the age of fifty, having underachieved at school and left to go to work as soon as I was able – eventually gaining the minimum achievements necessary for me to go to Teacher Training College.
Having mentored teachers for a decade, I widened my scope to work with adults considering a degree and postgraduate students – often people returning to education after circumstances interfered with their progression. Then, in 2010, I set up my own business providing services to schools where I gave guidance for children with social and emotional difficulties which had become a barrier.
On joining UCL’s mentoring programme, I was taught to be mindful of the rules of engagement: where meetings would take place, how often, discussions on exchanging email addresses and telephone numbers. These set the tone of the relationship, though they are sometimes subject to circumstance.
I am currently mentoring a student studying for a masters’ degree. Normally, we would meet from November until June – but due to COVID-19, our relationship will be ongoing by email and has worked well so far. Their exams have been taken online, and placements have been replicated virtually.
We also had discussions around the purpose and outcomes of our mentoring. I will always ask a prospective mentee: “What do you want from a mentor?” In my role, I keep notes on meetings and timelines. I have also kept notes on their achievements and what the next steps are. This helps the mentee to set and meet targets.
There are many dos and don’ts, not least trying to tell someone “how I’ve done it”. The key skill is the ability to listen actively and hear the stories behind adults taking on the daunting task of studying.
Last year I mentored a student taking a masters’ in Policy Making. They were interested in investigating the ‘hostile environment’ and its effect on migrants. Because I have an extensive network, I was able to link this student with someone working in Border Control in the Civil Service; they provided advice on career opportunities, writing a CV or Personal Statement, and interview techniques.
For me, the experience of mentoring has been extraordinarily rewarding. Working with those at risk of exclusion and helping them to see their potential has made a significant difference to their life chances.
Whoever I am speaking to, I hope I have been a trusted adviser. I listen and focus on the mentee, show empathy, follow processes, and help to find solutions. I remain non-judgemental and maintain a positive mind set. It’s a two-way relationship where conversations need to be focused, open and respectful.
Most importantly – for each and every person I have mentored – I have thought: “This person can be successful.”