Thoughts on reigning in mentors

Throwaway and VPN because I do not want this to be associated with my team.

I’m the (student) founder of a relatively new team. We got some excellent mentors and we were insanely lucky to receive the support we got from them. However, I feel like they can be extremely overbearing sometimes.

  • During the season, the students made some technical mistakes and things were a little tense, especially in the buildup to Houston. Some of our more old fashioned mentors started screaming at students, and I was told that people were leaving meetings crying because of it.

  • Because of said mistakes, I think the mentors have lost faith in the student’s ability to run a team at all and have since started making decisions for the team on their own. This has gotten to the point where a particular mentor who has a lot of experience and influence on how our team runs has started essentially stripping power away from the student leadership team, making things the decisions of the mentors

  • We got a new business mentor, who has been executing her duties fairly well. However, she treats it more like being a “robotics parent” in that she makes all the decisions and only leaves menial work for her department. (People have complained to me about this) Doesn’t help that her son, the business lead, is complicit in this.

I do not want our team to become a mentor-run team but I fear that, because the mentors demonstrate zero confidence in us, they won’t accept any other alternative. In any case, I definitely don’t want a team dynamic that leaves people crying. I’m fully willing to accept that I should’ve been more willing to tell them to back off at the time, but the problem has been getting out of control I think. Can I get CD’s help on respectfully telling them how to back off? Thank you.

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Step 1) have a meeting with student and adult leadership about the issues.

Step 2) ???

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As much as we’d like to help, it’s hard to give advice without really understanding the situation, and that usually involves publishing details you may not want to publish publicly.

I would recommend contacting your local FIRST Senior Mentor and asking for advice; they might be able to glean a better understanding of the situation being more local: https://www.firstinspires.org/sites/default/files/uploads/volunteer/senior-mentor/first-senior-mentor-map.pdf

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Well, the “simple but not easy” answer is to talk to your mentors. Schedule a time and a location where a relatively small group of mentors and student leaders can sit down and discuss the direction of the team, the goals of the team, and the responsibilities of both students and mentors on the team. That said, screaming at students and leaving them crying isn’t acceptable behaviour from any adult. I don’t have a good answer there.

Do a good job organizing and leading the meeting. Schedule it more than a week ahead of time, create an agenda that goes out with the meeting invite, make sure that you have a good place to meet and don’t tell people that it’s going to be a quick 30 minute meeting. It will more likely be 60-90 minutes. When meeting time comes, show up early and put yourself at the front of the room.

The other important point is how you frame your discussion. Make sure that you aren’t marching mentors in so that you can accuse and berate them. Set out the idea that we all have a problem, and we are going to work together to fix it. If you just start accusing people of acting improperly, then they’re going to want to defend themselves, and you’ll keep building that wall between the students and mentors. Oh, and beforehand, make an attempt to see things from their point of view. The actions they took may have been wrong, but they almost certainly weren’t malicious.

Doing a good job organizing and preparing the meeting will demonstrate some leadership ability (I wouldn’t call attention to this though. Let your mentors notice that on their own.)

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Please remember that FRC is mentor led and that your team can not function without mentors, every team is required to have at least 2 adult mentors that pass the background check so no team is truly a student led organization.

You should respectfully and not in a public manner speak with the mentors about your concerns. However, it sounds from your description that the student leadership may have slipped up last season. When the “subordinates/students” in the organization demonstrate that are not ready for a leadership position the “superior/mentor” must take the lead for the good of the organization, while continuing to develop the “subordinate/students” for future leadership opportunities. Also remember that not every person is meant/ready for a leadership position.

Bottom line the lead coach/mentor is in charge of the team. If team members disagree with the lead coach/mentor, you must find a way forward just like when you enter the workforce and have to deal with co-workers and bosses.

If you think it is a YPP situation contact your local senior mentor, regional director, FIRST HQ, or me directly. If it is a simple difference of opinion that is a team issue.

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I agree. Keep the meeting between the student leadership and mentors. The fewer people that are present the better of a chance that you’re discussions will stay on target.
Keep the list of objectives concise. Be respectful. Focus on the issues. Don’t make it about personalities.
Stop the meeting if it begins to deteriorate, agree to reconvene the meeting after tempers/emotions cool (give it a day or two)
Save the meeting with the entire team until after the first meeting resolved the issues.

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I agree with a lot of what you are saying about the importance of mentors and the respect that should be showed towards them, especially in discussions like these. While mentors are crucial to every team and ultimately, in charge, I think that students bringing up issues that they see in how the mentors are acting is completely reasonable.

Specifically, in this case, I think it is reasonable for a group of students to try and deal with screaming resulting in students crying internally and I commend the OP for reaching out to try and get advice from the community. That is not acceptable behavior and if it can be dealt with effectively within the team, it is probably best for everyone involved.

You are absolutely right that the role of a lead mentor is absolutely crucial to an FRC team. I am always impressed with people who can make this commitment and I think it is important to talk openly with them about how the team is running in a professional and calm matter.

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I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. However, the screaming and crying comments were second/third hand information in the OP’s post. I most certainly agree that the students should talk to the mentors about the issues and if they believe a YPP situation is occurring they should contact someone in FRC ecosystem. Senior Mentor, Regional Director, FIRST HQ ect. I even volunteered for them to contact me directly (FYI, I am a Senior Mentor)

However, the last seven years as a high school teacher has taught me that most high school students do not have/present all of the pertinent facts with most situations. So I am hesitant to immediately believe the “our mentors are bad and the students are great” type posts.

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Totally agree with you here, I guess the way I read your post initially, it seemed a bit dismissive but I totally get that you probably have skepticism in this scenario. You are right about students often not having the whole picture and without a full picture, it’s not any of our place to pass judgement.

As I said, I think I mis-read the tone of your original post and I agree that there are probably elements that aren’t available to the students and that they need to have a respectful discussion to address the issues that are being felt.

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Being a mentor, especially a lead mentor, is not an easy role. It is easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of the game and feel like you need win at any cost.

FRC is about giving the students an opportunity to learn and grow and in some case to fail.

You mentioned that you are a young team. Did you, as a team set goals at the beginning of the year (before kickoff)? It is important to do that and then to put those goals somewhere where you can all see them during the year. If you do that, then whenever the team is faced with the consequences of a bad decision, you can look at those goals and understand how that decision impacted those goals. In most cases, when you think about what you, as a team, are trying to accomplish, you will see that the mistakes are just part of the process of learning and growing.

One thing that we have done on our team is turned the word Mentor into an acronym:

M - Motivate, and
E - Educate, but
N - No
T - Touching
O - Our
R - Robot

This is, on our team, the role of the mentors. We encourage the students to stretch themselves (motivate) and pass along what we know and sometime be the voice of reason (educate), but ultimately, we let the students make all the design decisions and allow them to own the robot from cradle to grave. It is hard to see a better way to do something and not step in and fix it. We ask the students to tell us when we have crossed a line and we mentors know that if the students call us out, we need to back off because we are touching their robot.

I’m sure that if you talk to the mentors, they will agree to the high level goals of the program and the team and allow you to work together with them to carve out a role for them without having them interfere with what you as the team are trying to accomplish.

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We have not seen all sides of the issue(s).

The OP, @JustSomeThoughts, did not state, specifically, what lead to the adults getting so upset that they may have been screaming.

It is also not clear what makes the adults feel that they should have to take over running the team. The OP only referred to “some techinical mistakes”. While there are many teams with student leadership that are perfectly capable of running a team very effectively, there are also teams where this is not the case. Unfortunately, being elected to a position does not suddenly make someone qualified to perform the duties required by that position.

The goal setting that @wgorgen describes is crucial. It sets the expectations for all involved; the students, the mentors, the parents, the school administration and the sponsors. If different people have different expectations from their involvement in the team, it is likely that someone will be upset and disapointed.

Which was pretty much the full intent of my complete post? We have a lot of missing information in this situation.

The simple answer is that too don’t tell them to back off. You communicate with your mentors, express your concerns, and come to an agreement. If the mentors are worth their salt, they’ll listen and work with you.

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I don’t need any of these questions answered but please consider them when you plan your meeting with the adults on your team. Do you have existing frameworks that you must work within? Does your school mandate that at least one teachers be part of the adult leadership? Have you made existing commitments that must be followed through, whether they be financial, academic or otherwise? Do you have a plan for executing these additional commitments?

When you think about a high school project, you’re generally given deadlines, checkpoints within the project timeline and, if you’re lucky, a rubric by which you’re graded. In terms of FRC, there are many of the same types of requirements but you may not see them all. I’m a mentor for an FRC team. I see all commitments across a year or longer. Are the students aware of all the requirements that you have as a team? Are you managing them and committing to do the work? If you repeatedly demonstrate that not only do you know what’s due when but have an action plan for getting it done, and then follow through, your coaches are going to see that you are responsible and thorough. They should be able to trust that you’ll be able to carry the workload.

If the issue is that you had a plan and it failed (a very common thing across many different experiences!), do you know what was the fallout? This may be one of the areas where you may not have all the information or be able to receive it. For instance, if a teacher received a stipend which was contingent competing in two district events and you only made it to one, that coach may not share that information with you.

Just like a school project where you have points within the project that allow you to see if you’ve made enough progress towards your goal, you might want to construct a plan for the season where you can all agree on stages where you can check in on measurable goals. For instance, you might set as a goal that everyone is signed in STIMS before December 1. That’s a goal that is easy to see if you’re on track. Or you might have to have all the travel and health forms completed by that point.

I am going to agree with @Ty_Tremblay. If you tell your mentors to back off, they may. And they may not come back. Most of us do this because we care about the program and the students. If you tell your mentors that they’re not wanted, then they will understand.

This is all part of what you’re supposed to be learning within FIRST. It’s not really about the robot. :slight_smile:

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To the OP…all of the responses encouraging communication are giving good advice. HOW to communicate such that you maximize information sharing, maintain or enhance relationships, and generate positive results is even more important than understanding the need to communicate. I strongly recommend reading the book Crucial Conversations. It’s not a long and tedious read. It’s reasonable to knock it out in a few days. The lessons in this book are so powerful in my opinion that this should be required reading for every person. In particular, this book is exceptional at making sure you understand how YOU may be contributing to the situation that is now in need of a crucial conversation. Best wishes in helping your team to have highly productive communication. It would be a big step along your (never-ending) leadership journey.

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To me, it sounds like what’s really needed here is an agreed on mission statement and set of core values. That will only come through first having the leadership (student and mentor) sit down and talk about their different desires for the team, agree on a path forward, and then bring it to the rest of the team to get consensus.

A mission statement is going to tell you why your team exists. It’s going to tell you what your purpose is, what you are trying to achieve. The football coach at the University of Minnesota has a phrase - row the boat. Everyone on the team needs to be rowing in the same direction if you want to get anywhere, otherwise you’ll just be going in circles. The mission statement tells everyone what that direction is. It’s not something that can be created in a 30 min meeting - our took hours during our fall retreat to generate the basic outline, and then a couple more weeks to finalize the wording.

My team’s mission statement is “To inspire girls of all ages to incorporate STEM into their lives and to revolutionize the perception of women in STEM”. It drives everything we do. Our outreach focuses on that mission statement. How we handle internal team leadership and organization revolves around using that mission to impact our students. You’ll see our mentors being more hands-off at events than many other teams, specifically because we determined that one of the best ways of accomplishing that mission was to focus on training and growing our students to be role models for every girl that comes by the pit, and that means being competent to handle things themselves.

Core values are almost as important as the mission statement. They tell you what’s important to your team members and the team as a whole. They tell you how to act, and how you’re going to accomplish your mission. One of the local (and Einstein) MC’s, Yoji, has a great core values workshop he puts on for teams. If you get to a point where you want to generate some, I can put you in touch with him to see what he can do to help you out, where ever you may be. It takes a couple of hours in the workshop, and then more time from the team over the following weeks to make sure you’ve picked the right values and define them. And then you have to reinforce them within the team every single week.

Our core values are:
Compassion – Treating others in a caring, inclusive, and Salesian manner
Integrity – Doing what is right, not what is easy
Curiosity – Seeking new ideas and exploring possibilities in STEM and in our lives
Perseverance – Overcoming obstacles to strive for excellence
Confidence – Trusting our abilities and taking pride in our accomplishments

With that mission statement and those core values, it’s impossible for a mentor to come in and dominate the team. It just doesn’t fit with the team culture, and both the student leadership and other team mentors would take action to correct the problem.

Talk with your mentors. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, or who did what and why. That’s all in the past. It’s about moving forward and getting on the same page. It’s clear you have a different perception of how the team should be run than the mentors - that’s fine. Work together to come up with a mission statement that everyone can support and core values that everyone believes in, and use those to guide your team moving forward.

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Very much agree with this!

I gave a workshop on Goal Setting last month at CCC, consider giving it a watch. Some of the points might be relevant your situation. Credit to @Karthik for much of the presentation content.

Best,

-Mike

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