Too often school initiatives, whether they promote technology or grammar or social-emotional wellness, are offered up in a void. They have no real context in which to unfold, and they are spooned into the school day like so many doses of cough syrup. Thus, they become all too easy to dismiss, as valuable as they may be, because they offer no real context for learning.

Thus, when I read books like Patty Alper’s Teach to Work, I do a little cognitive dance for the kind of authentic learning that can provide the context students need, while simultaneously offering the chance to hone key skills, such as collaboration and communication, that students must have to succeed in the future.

Why Mentoring Matters

Within the context of coaching students as they develop business plans, make product pitches, and prototype products, Alper offers a framework for developing real-life business projects into school programs. Alper founded the Adopt-a-Class program for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and acted as a mentor herself for upwards of fifteen years. She has grounded her understanding of the mentoring process in project-based learning. Further, she has researched a skills-based approach to mentoring that draws upon research and her own experience in the business world.

Alper first makes a strong case for mentoring with an entrepreneurial focus — both from the perspective of growing businesses and benefitting the workforce, but also as a way to unlock the potential of kids who typically receive little exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and problem-solving, the very young people who might see such things as out-of-reach. Apler maintains, “If experts, geniuses and Nobel Laureates benefit from mentors, if it is a model that has stood the test of time, if it continues to be integral in Masters and Ph.D. programs, why isn’t it more pervasive in the tracks of education where students need it most?”

Providing Structure for Authentic Projects

Next, Alper, breaks down the mentoring process into practical steps that give anyone new to working one-on-one as a mentor the kind of practical advice and concrete overview that they will need, from what to say on the first day to how to organize field trips to how to transition appropriately at the end of a school year. Throughout her detailed descriptions, Alper peppers lively examples of her own interactions with students as case studies. In essence, Alper answers any questions, large and small, a mentor might have before taking on a somewhat daunting role that can nonetheless make a real difference in students’ lives. At the same time Alper rightly cautions mentors about the commitments and expectations involved.

Alper is particularly helpful in providing advice to potential mentors who must navigate schools that may not look like what they remember from their own educational backgrounds. She offers advice on communications, procedures, and the realities of students’ home lives and educational experience. In particular, she is sensitive to the respectful relationships the mentor must build with the classroom teacher and with the students themselves.

Agency, Responsibility, Execution

The secret of Alper’s success, however, in Teach to Work lies in her keen understanding of the need for student agency. Again and again, she provides thoughtful commentary on how mentors must listen to students’ stories and dreams, how they should seek to understand kids where they are, how mentors must model shouldering responsibility and learning from mistakes, and how they can ultimately help the young people they work with unleash an internal drive that can propel them into the future. Moreover, when these adults open the doors to a world of possibilities for executing real business projects, they make the kind of difference in students’ lives that usually only receives lip service.

I recommend Patty Alper’s Teach to Work to anyone who wants to take on a mentoring role, start an entrepreneurship program in a school or workplace, or unknot the kinks of a program already in existence. Even if you are just beginning to acknowledge a personal desire for a larger sense of purpose, you can browse the exhaustive list of resources for entrepreneurship programs at the back of the book and surely find somewhere to begin.

Now, if schools could only take a lesson from Alper as well and provide the context for learning that their many well-meaning initiatives require — a context that is grounded in authentic work in a real-world environment that gives students agency to explore — well, then we might be getting somewhere.

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