Mentor to Team Relationship

So being a rookie team, we still have lots of mentors coming in and a few leaving so we still have time to set the relationship between them and our team. Therefore, I was wondering within FRC, should mentors be treated as more like part of the family (we consider the team a family) or more on strictly professional relationship? We also do not have any restrictions or rules of interactions between mentors and students unlike some schools. Thanks!

EDIT: If you are a mentor, please don’t be insulted by this. I’m just asking so that I don’t accidentally offend my team’s mentors or treat them incorrectly. I want to be as much in the spirit as FIRST/FRC as possible.

I am lucky enough to have a lot of great mentors on my FRC team. Over the past couple of years, I have made great bonds with many of them that I now look up to as either father figures or great friends. It all depends on which way your student to mentor relationship goes. But in the beginning, definitely start with the “professional” relationship!!!



I think it also depends on what kind of mentors you have. If they are primarily alumni (I guess that might not apply as much to a rookie team, unless they are from other teams) or parents of current students, it might make more sense to treat them as family. If they are from corporate sponsors or strictly technical, then it might become more of a professional relationship.

FYI, you’ve competed in two seasons already, you aren’t rookies any more :slight_smile:

How the students and mentors interact is going to be different depending on the team, and sometimes even depending on the individuals involved. I know teams where all of the mentors are “Mr” and “Mrs”, and others where they’re less formal and referred to by their first names.

Within my own team, we’ve always had a mix. Teachers and parent-mentors are typically “Mr” and “Mrs”, while pretty much everyone else is just their first names. That makes some sense, as our culture pretty much dictates those forms of address for your friends parents and your teachers. For me personally, I find that going by first name helps to break down some barriers and make it easier to act as coworkers. It makes students more comfortable talking with me, sharing their ideas, and challenging mine. It helps keep me grounded and not feeling like I’m better than the students. And as Disney and Pixar so eloquently put it, “Mister Turtle is my father”.

I personally think the mode of address matters less than being able to show mutual respect and appreciation. Mentors have a lot to offer, and are volunteering a lot of their time, and students should make sure they know what that means to them. It’s as easy as active listening, going to mentors with questions, and making sure you seek their input. Light banter and friendly side chat can be just fine and help a team gel, so long as everyone keeps showing respect.

They’ve only completed one (2018), although they built a robot to compete as pre-rookies in two fall 2017 off-season events.

First off, this is a fantastic question. The following response is not very structured, rather, a quick journal of my thoughts on the topic.

In my experience, I’ve always found that as a student, the mentors (even those who I’ve had outside of FRC) that have benefitted the students most are the ones who make the mentor-student relationship a partnership. As with everything, there is a spectrum, and usually having a balance somewhere in between is good. My personal philosophy leans closer to being a family, however.

Mentors shouldn’t be secretive, except for discussions that relate to inter-student disputes or legal issues, since it’s generally accepted that students aren’t mature enough to handle problems of that nature, and that’s okay. As a general principle, mentors should make their best effort to work 1 on 1 with every student, get to know them, and be a resource for the student to come to for general advice or expertise. This may mean that mentors do work on the robot, and that is also okay! Mentors are the role models and set the attitude for the student body, so mentors should be willing to apply themselves, and encourage students to do so as well.

Students who are more comfortable with their mentors are more likely to voice concerns, ask for help, and apply themselves. One may make the argument that professional relationships are what students are being prepared for since that will be their future, yet conversely, successful workplaces worldwide are becoming less formal, and in the end, our program exists to inspire students to love the STEM disciplines, so why should mentors hamper that experience and push students away by being “professional”? At some extent, IQ doesn’t matter, EQ does - and when your role as a mentor is building exceptional people who demonstrate mature social qualities, emotional intelligence matters.

With all this said, it’s important to find a balance. It’s never okay to sacrifice student safety or privacy for the sake of being a “family”, nor is it okay to let discussions go off topic and lose productivity. This balance and culture is always set by the lead mentor(s) and quite simply, those who have high EQ and IQ, respect their students and peers, and enable people to be their best will be the most successful. Culture is set from the top.

As always, there will be good points for either argument - family or professional. But speaking solely from my experience, building a family is almost always beneficial to the student experience and for their well-being.

With your message, it sounds like there’s some intent to mold the team around the mentors and what would be an “appropriate” relationship.

Beyond the “at least two students or two adults in every communication” rule, the rest should be up to teams to determine what culture they wish to cultivate.

As a mentor, there are a variety of teams I can go work with. If mentoring FRC is what I WANT to do, there’s a team that’ll match my personality. If the team is changing their culture to appease a mentor, you’re giving up a piece of your experience.

Forge your own identity. One of my favorite things about watching the various teams I’ve spent time with is seeing students empowered to not only work towards lofty goals, but to just be themselves. In many places, you’re encouraged to change bits and pieces to be more marketable. Marketable to college. Marketable to peers. Marketable to jobs. In one of those places that encourages you to be yourselves, please take advantage. Mentors that are meant to fit in with your team will slide into the team as if nothing happened. Those that aren’t a good match for your team will work towards other teams (or realize this really isn’t what excites them and that’s fair too).

You won’t get a single answer to your question. There isn’t a right answer. Some relationships work for some teams. Others work for others. Find the one that works for your team and you’ll naturally attract mentors that fit your mold.

All teams have different cultures and there are good reasons for that. On my team I am Seth mostly unless the student wants to us Mr Mallory. On the other 2 teams that I am involved in I am Mr Mallory and that is how the team wants the students to address me. On our team 3 of 4 mentors are are address by their first name and one is not That is how we are comfortable and it works for us. I can adapt to what makes people comfortable.

Each team is different; you need to find what works for you. What follows is what happens on 3946 from my perspective.

I don’t know of any intentional decision ever made, but 3946 has always considered mentors who show up as often as students are required to do (or a little less) as part of the family. It works for us, and as a result we have several mentors (myself included) who have continued after “legal family” student members have graduated. On the flip side, I have attended quite a few Slidell HS graduation ceremonies solely to cheer on the students I have mentored. That’s a family thing. We’re also informal yet respectful in a comfortably southern way. When Gustave III (Gixxy) was a student on the team, I was known as G2, and he as G3. Now, I’m simply “Mr. Gus” to most of the students, even to those who describe me to the rookies in embarrassingly respectful terms.

On a more abstract level, I’ve come to believe that a team needs two things: a common purpose, and trust. [For team building purposes, communications is a great facilitator of trust.] That’s already a closer bond than many families have. If anyone has a role that you depend on, and you trust them to do it, why wouldn’t you consider them members of the team/family?

Edit: It looks like I have a few minutes to edit. In this part of the country, “Miss” or “Mr.” <first name> is pretty typical for family, informal, and small business settings across generations. Schools typically have these with surnames for teachers, though sometimes “Coach” is used rather than “Mr.”, “Miss”, “Ms”, or “Mrs.”, and there are always specific exceptions - one of our football coaches, “Barry Marton”, is “Coach Barry”, and his son is “Coach Travis”. Not sure if this is because of the pair of them, or because “Mrs. Marton”, Barry’s mother was in administration a couple of years ago as well. The three alumni and college age mentors (this is the first year we’ve had any besides G3) are referred to simply by first name. Travis (only a few years older) is sometimes just Travis, sometimes Coach Travis on robotics. Whatever works works.

Something I haven’t seen said here is social norms in a given region. What is acceptable and respectable in Texas may be considered overly formal in New Jersey. What’s acceptable in New Jersey may be extremely offensive in Isreal.*

Other than that, I think everything has been said. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the question.

I found this quote summed up what I would have said very nicely.

*I have no way of knowing if this is true. It is just an example of places with different cultures.

On my team, the younger mentors tend towards use of first names; the more senior mentors tend towards use of last names. Within the mentor pool, it’s primarily first names, though I have been known to direct a student to see “mentor last name”.

It’s a personal thing, I think. Best way to explain it is: What does the mentor want to be called?

For the record, in Israel most teachers are referred to by their first name (no Mr. or Mrs. either). At least on my team, most students refer to each other by their last name, both for social reasons and because a number of students on the team share first names. This is very different from the norm in Philly, and I would assume most of the US. I know this isn’t really the point of this thread, but it just goes to show how the answer to this question may change regionally.

We are a bit of a mix.

Our team has evolved out of a middle school program I’ve been running for 18 years. There I tell the students they should refer to me as Dr. Wolter or Mr. Wolter…but sometimes I get students coming back for a second or third year. These vets are allowed, but certainly not required, to use my first name.

BTW, in the school’s official course description my title is given as “Robot Overlord”.

On the FRC team newer members are generally using formal titles, in part because we have too many mentors named Scott! Veterans and in general later in the season we get less formal.

At tournaments we go strictly formal titles. It is a way of showing respect to the judges among other things.

Tim Wolter
(really) Middle School Robot Overlord

Moved thread to Team Organization

Great thread. This topic has been on my mind a great deal for the past few weeks, but I’d like to approach this from a different perspective than merely how to refer to mentors by name.

I think most “traditional” teams probably meet these criteria:

  • Are affiliated with a particular high school as a club or sport.
  • Typically led by a school official.
  • Most mentors are “parent age,” meaning that they’re usually old enough to be parents of a high school student.

While this describes my experience as a student on 20, mentoring on 6844 has been completely different. We’re a community team (not affiliated with a particular school) and almost entirely mentored via BYU students. Financially, we’re our own 501©(3). We’re pretty nontraditional.

I’ve mentioned this before on CD, our unique situation has made for some fun things:

  • 19 year old college freshman chaperoning 18 year old high school seniors at Champs.
  • Pretty much no generational gap.
  • Judges intentionally coming up to me and disregarding high school students multiple times. (I apparently looked younger; separately, a CSA thought I was a sophomore in high school and not a sophomore in college.)
  • Far more comfort across the mentor/student boundary. We’re definitely more casual.
  • No mentors with a degree (this has changed recently).

I apologize for getting a little heavy here, but there are a few scenarios that I never want to have happen:

  • Financial misconduct, such as embezzling team funds.
  • Accusations of sexual misconduct. Keep in mind that this one is particularly tricky given the ages involved.
  • Any physical injury, especially if it wasn’t caused by a machine.

Given the makeup of our board and our team situation, I think that if any one of those occurred, we’d be sunk and the team would cease to exist. In order to prevent any misunderstandings, we’ve implemented several policies on our team. Some highlights follow:

  • We take FIRST’s YPP policy very seriously.
  • Background checks are mandatory for all mentors, not just Lead Mentor 1 and 2.
  • Finances are reviewed by both Lead Mentor 1 and Lead Mentor 2. Further review is done by officers and board members for the 501©(3). We’re considering having team captains also sign off on purchases.
  • No mentor is to be alone with a student. In almost all cases, this means that there are two mentors present within sight and sound. The only exceptions we allow for this are transportation related, and require clearance from team leadership and parents.
  • Centralized communication on Slack.

For us, this forms a definite barrier between relationships that are appropriate and those that are inappropriate.

Perhaps I’m too liberal, but I disagree. My philosophy in mentorship is to build up students who I can trust. I trust our team leadership, and that trust includes confidence in their ability to keep information confidential and handle operational stuff like finances. Frankly, the conduct of my students has been far more gracious and professional than some of the recent conduct by adults on CD.

Keep in mind our perspective, though. We don’t have any school to answer to. And being run by college mentors, we are essentially asking ourselves “is there a big difference between the abilities of a college student and a high school student?”

Many “traditional” teams that are more than a few years old also have at least a significant minority of mentors who are alumni, or older siblings of team members or alumni. (3946 currently has 2 alumni (one of whom has a sibling currently on the team), an older brother of an alumnus, and a never-student-member older sister of a student member who attend most meetings, as well as an alumnus who mentors regularly via internet and occasionally in person.

At some point, each team will need to figure out when and how “near peer” mentors transition to “Mr.” and “Miss”. Families, churches, and other multigenerational groups go through this all the time, so I expect it will be easier and more natural when the time comes than it appears here in 2018.

In terms of inter-student conflict sure. But student’s home-lives or potential personal issues that you are made aware of as a mentor aren’t the business of their peers. If a parent or student wants to explain to mentors that a divorce or death in the family may affect that student, I don’t think is the mentor’s business to share.

Perhaps I should clarify: my comment was directed towards the notion that students are inherently less mature and trustworthy than mentors. That’s probably not what was intended to come across in the post, but that’s how I read it. 6844 has been lucky to have fabulous students who inspire me to be a better human being.

You’re totally right - not every situation is appropriate for student involvement. And if something confidential comes up where I am asked to not disclose something to students, including team captains, that will absolutely be honored. But I prefer transparency.

While there are certain exceptions (I know of many personally) in the general case, students are inherently less mature than mentors for physiological reasons. That doesn’t mean that students can’t act with the emotional intelligence of adults or that they can’t take on large responsibilities with tact. But it means that taking pause before involving them in private student issues or legal issues. With the later they may not legally be able to contribute.

When WildStang started in 1996, there were Motorola engineers and there were teachers. Then there was my wife and I. We were neither Motorolans or teachers. Quite frankly the team didn’t know how to handle us. For a few years we were tolerated but made our own travel to events, bought our own t-shirts, showed up during the build season and worked on the team. Then a Motorola manager noticed that we weren’t included on the travel list to Champs and raised an issue with that. From that point on we were parent mentors. Even though we were in this limbo status we still felt very much part of the team. We had/have time invested in building the robot, working with the team on community outreach, working on Chairman’s goals and especially as chaperones. We felt very strongly (and still do) that when the team succeeded we were part of that success just like every student, teacher or Motorola engineer. Our participation (or determination) paved the way for many other parents to become mentors and work with the students and other mentors to help make the program a success. I am happy that we now have a Parent’s Organization that helps to support the team. My name tag still says WildStang and I still bleed tie dye 24 years later.
BTW, a vice president of Motorola thought I was an employee because he saw me all the time (more than ten years at that time). He asked what department I worked in so he could send my manager a good report. When I told him I worked some other place and never worked at Motorola he was surprised.