Organizing a Community-College Based Team

Last spring I met a rookie team at Silicon Valley Regional and offered to join on as a mentor for the 2017-2018 year. They are based out of a community college “middle college” program - essentially, the program allows high school students at participating high schools to take all their classes at the community college for their junior and senior year.

However, as I’ve been trying to dig in and help, I’ve come to realize how many issues this team has. The crux of it is two main things:

  1. The students are all very busy and have largely non-overlapping schedules, which makes it hard to find times to meet with more than one or two members present. Unlike traditional high schools where all students have approximately the same class hours, many of our students have classes interspersed from morning to evening. Most of them also work 15-30 hours a week. They plan meetings a day or two in advance, with no regular schedule, and as a result only a couple people show up, they are disorganized, everyone is frustrated and stressed out. It’s also hard to sort out any of the miscellaneous problems we have as a young team, because we’re never all in the same room together to talk about things.

  2. They had no mentors last year (someone’s mom signed off on the paperwork, but wasn’t actively involved), so they are used to doing things their way without a lot of rules. Suggesting even basic rules, such as “no using power tools without an adult present” has been met with a lot of resistance, and doesn’t have school policy enforcing it (just my perception of best practices). The college administration has issued them their own key to the workroom, and seems content to treat them as adults even though they are minors (because their parents signed a special liability release in order for them to join the middle college program), and I get the vibe that they kind of think of themselves as grown-up enough to be above things like “adult supervision”. They also insist on doing many things for themselves - for example, I offered to sit down with them and help them figure out a schedule for meetings, and they said “I just think it should be on us [the student leads] to figure it out”. A week later, they have finally sent out a poll to the team asking when people are free. They put out the word last year that they were looking for mentors, but they seem resistant to letting us take on any responsibility in the team, even though they seem to not have/make time to do it themselves. (they have one other mentor as well, who seems great but has not showed up to many meetings because they don’t give enough advance warning).

I don’t want to bail on this team to find a new one to mentor at the first sign of difficulty. But I have offered to help them and tried to give them my advice, and feel like I’m being rebuffed. I don’t want to steamroller them with “my way or the highway” ultimatums, but the way this is running right now stresses me out and isn’t very fun or rewarding to be involved in. Does anyone have suggestions for ways to try to improve our team dynamic?

There is one thing you can and should steamroll on: YPP. You agreed to follow FIRST’s Youth Protection Policies when you first registered this year, and flaunting it (as not having adults around appears to) risks harm to the team and its members.

I would read, take notes, and use that as a starting point to discuss mutual expectations.

My take on this issue is unless there is a strong student leader who is organizing the meetings and ensuring that a team culture (about meetings, rules, ,etc.) is instituted and schedules are created and organized in a planned and logical way, a mentor should be the one in charge.

FRC is “the varsity sport of the mind”, and going off of the word “varsity”, its like any high school sport team, where students who are on the team are expected to attend meetings, and a coach (whether that be a strong willed student or mentor) is leading the team within those organized meetings.

The other thing with mentors is that they are there to help; not to build the robot, but to teach and inspire the students which they assist. If they are a team that wants to be 100% student run, led, and organized, they are shooting themselves in the foot because they are not accepting the help that adults with wisdom of age and experience are offering.

My team was once just like this team, and there would be no way we would exist today without mentor support.

Sit the team down, establish that a FRC team is like any other varsity sports team and that there are expectations from its members. Then with that, then talk about team dynamics and organization.

If the students accept this, then awesome! You’re one step closer to creating a more successful FRC team.

If not, then I would suggest allowing them to continue in their ways and find a team that appreciates mentor sacrifices and commitment.

Hello, I’m from Washtenaw Technical Middle College – a program very similar to the one you described – so perhaps my opinion is relevant.

  1. This is an on-going problem that team 6101 faces also. Our best solution so far has been to schedule set meeting times a semester in advance (ie before class registration) and have our members schedule classes around those time. Still, a significant amount of our team can’t come to every meeting, but we get enough people to get by. A work around is utilize a communication platform to get most of the logistics figured out online. Team 6101 uses Basecamp, which is free for students.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with a 100% lead student team. As a middle college student, I understand how independent we like to be – my advice is to let them be independent (safety issues withholding). They’re used to being treated as adults, so anything less is demeaning. Team 6101 is 100% student-lead and is doing just fine so far. We have mentors, but they only help with technical issues, not strategy or logistics. If you have a suggestion for improvement, its probably a good one and they would like to hear it, but be prepared to accept no for an answer. Above all: remember that their success is not your responsibility, it’s theirs.

If you have any specific questions, team 6101 may have some experience with those issues.

I’d imagine that a mentor that wants to be as involved as Sarah, wouldn’t be willing to just sit back and watch, and just occasionally help with technical advice that may or may not be used… Atleast I know I wouldn’t want to do that when I graduate and become a mentor.

That’s debatable.

I don’t think the First YPP really addresses tool safety. As I understand the YPP guidelines it says if one adult is present, there should be two. Even that is a good practice and not a strict rule. For example our team follows our school YP policy which allows teachers to be present without another adult, but not non school employee mentors. Sort of a long winded way of saying don’t look to First policies to help you out with your dilemma. :]

As for as tool and youth safety. If it is happening on school property then the school is sharing in the liability in some shape or form. Liability waivers are largely ineffective especially for under 18. Effective ones vary with state law and how well they spell out specific risks. As a mentor I would discuss it with the school administration to be they understand what tools are being used, That they are dual enrolled students (not full time college), probably mostly under 18. to clarify what tool policy they want followed and what YPP they want followed. As a complicating factor their high school of record might have rules that need to be followed as well.

As a mentor you get to decide what role you want to take on. You then need to meet with the team leadership and decide if your goals coincide with team goals close enough that you share a vision. If not both of you will be better off not working together. Do remember as the adult in the room there are some things you cannot delegate.

Good luck to your decision and your team.

Definitely try these excellent suggestions to work things out, but at the same time, if the team is this dysfunctional and adamant about staying this way, it’s totally reasonable for you to want to remove yourself from a toxic environment to help out somewhere less stressful. Don’t be afraid to use that option if it comes to it and the team situation doesn’t improve.

Seconding this. You only have so much time in the day and energy to give. Sometimes organizational inertia requires more than one person can give to have positive change effected on it.

Sounds to me like FRC is not for your team. FRC takes a lot of dedication, time and money. FTC might be a better fit. You can get away with meeting a couple times a week. Smaller teams are fine as well.

Gonna throw out a different angle here: Middle College is NOT analogous to normal High School teams. The students are nowhere near the maturity or responsibility level of public or private school. They tend to be far more mature, far more independent, and very determined to handle things on their own terms.

Attempting to manage a team of Middle College students with the same techniques or methods as a traditional school will result in complete failure and rejection of the program. Remember, these are students who have intentionally, and with the buy-in of their parents, walked away from traditional education. They’re at Middle College because the traditional school system was either too restrictive, too limiting, or not challenging enough.

Running a student-driven team is doable, but it’s HARD. If you’re not used to this type of student, failure is imminent. I’m a Middle College graduate, and without it, I probably would have dropped out entirely and wound up rejecting most of society.

So, here’s my suggestions to reach these students, and to get some structure.

  • Develop a team “Constitution” with the input of the team members. These rules will be how they best see the program succeeding.
  • Have them develop a roadmap to what they see as success. During this process, you can provide anecdotes and examples of good and bad strategies based on your experience.
  • Realize you’re not going to be able to control this program. It’s impossible. Let the students run certain things, such as planning, strategy, design, etc. Refuse to yield on safety matters, but do so with an explanation of the insurance, safety, and funding angles.
  • Sometimes, failure teaches a stronger lesson than mediocre performance.

Sounds pretty similar to many college teams I’ve been a part of or worked with. It doesn’t sound like you have the authority that most other high school coaches have in that the students ultimately get to call the shots. The only way things are going to change is if you can convince to current leadership to develop a more balanced team culture between mentors and students. Like Chris said though, if they are adamant of things staying the same then they likely will.

Thank you all for your advice and insights. I have emailed the team captains to let them know I’m frustrated and thinking about leaving the team, and a list of issues we need to resolve if I’m going to stay (which are a little more complex than what I listed).

I think it’s possible that this will turn out to just not be a good culture fit for me, if they are really committed to doing everything for themselves. I do like to be more involved as a mentor, and want to feel like I’m actually making a difference teaching and inspiring students, not just signing off on paperwork and reminding people to wear safety glasses. I believe there’s still a good chance of reconciling and striking a balance we’re all happy with, but if it doesn’t work out, I feel a little better about possibly accepting that and moving on.

I’ll post an update in a while, once we’ve decided on a course of action.

While I hope everything turns out well with your team, if you ever do find yourself looking for a team in the Bay Area that can use a more hands-on mentor, I can point you in a few directions.

I think, if that is what you emailed them then there is a pretty good chance it is just going to put their backs up and make them more resistant to a compromise. If you do stay, then you are looking for a compromise, where both parties are relatively happy. A list of things that must change for you to stay may just come off as an ultimatum…

I agree that these kinds of things are best handled face to face. But there are some things you cannot compromise on. On those things it best not to pretend you can. Maybe a better email would detail the issues that need to be discussed. Better to have an agreement than to be fighting them the entire season. These kind of meetings can be stressful and difficult. The people that make them seem easy are called mediators. The good ones tend to make lots of money. :]
Anyway good luck to you and your team.

When I logged into the “new” Chief Delphi, I was reminded of this post and realized I had never posted a final update. After a lot of meetings with the student leaders, the other mentor, and the Regional Director, both the other mentor and I ultimately ended up leaving the middle college team. In addition to the issues I talked about in my original post, several other incidents gave us serious concern regarding certain team members’ integrity and ability to treat each other with basic respect. I won’t go into more detail on those issues here, but ultimately we felt that without the power to impose any kind of disciplinary consequences, trying to make headway on any of these issues would have been a long, miserable uphill battle.

I’m now a mentor for Team 668, which I’ve found to be a much better culture fit for me and the kind of role and impact I want to have as a mentor. The middle college team competed last year, but has dissolved now that its founding members have graduated.