Mentors Make All the Difference: A Reflection on Student-Teacher Relationships at High Tech High & Bennett Day Upper School

Bennett Day School is the only school in Illinois to receive the New School Creation Fellowship from High Tech High, the progressive, project-based school featured in the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Representatives from Bennett Day Upper School spent a week at High Tech High in San Diego for the second phase of the fellowship. While the first phase focused on equity in schools, the second focused on developing deeper learning methods.

Upper School Lead Designer and Director, Martin Moran, shares his reflection on the experience:


On the first day of our residency at High Tech High for the New School Creation Fellowship, we had the opportunity to meet with our cohort of fellows from around the country and talk about kids. Specifically, we discussed how so many students get caught up in the system and labeled as “bad” or “failing,” simply because they don’t conform to the systemic norms of the school system. If a student is creative, curious, or even excited, they can often be deemed a “problem” because they are not always able to “sit still and listen.”

Further, we talked about how many of the students deemed to be a “problem” are students of color or come from marginalized communities. These students, who are made to feel bad about how they “just don’t fit in,” often act out because they feel as if they simply don’t belong. Our first Design Challenge of the week tasked us with helping teachers look past systemic expectations of students and learn more about the actual human beings in their classrooms.

Our conversations throughout the week brought to mind that when we talk about students “failing,” it’s often the system of school that really fails a child. I don’t know how many students I’ve taught who are constantly pushing to see just how much the school cares about them. They want to know if the school, and the adults within claiming that kids are important,  are “real.” Students want to know: does the school truly believe that all students matter?

This is an essential piece of adolescence: a time to question expectations, to wonder if the maxims they heard growing up are more than just talk. And not until we, as adults, can prove that we are authentic, real people who aren’t just spouting buzzwords about “success” and “rigor,” adolescents aren’t going to buy-in. It is on us, as teachers and mentors, to be real—to be there for them. 

Throughout the residency, I had a number of conversations with students at High Tech High, who told me why they love the school:

“What I love about Mary is how she knows me well enough to recommend the exact right book for me based on how I’m feeling right now.”

I heard many anecdotes like the one above, in which a senior girl tells me about her project-based learning (PBL) teacher. While the students love the hands-on, interdisciplinary learning, it is the relationships they have with their teachers that stick with them. Another student I spoke with talked glowingly about her advisor, Jen, who the student called her “one-woman support system.” In each conversation, students spoke of their advisors with such reverence that the school’s “secret sauce” became obvious: the close relationships between master mentors and their students.

Ultimately, it is the power of these relationships and the extent to which a school creates time to develop these meaningful connections, that makes students successful.

A school can tell you all about the million-or-so AP classes it offers, the high expectations on their students, and the myriad activities and extracurriculars available. These are all wonderful things; however, if a school is stuffing its schedule full of these extrinsic markers of success, where is the time for mentorship? If a student feels alienated from the community, without an adult who can help them navigate this new world of opportunities, do any of these other things even matter? 

The relationships that I saw at High Tech High reinforced my commitment to our robust advisory program at Bennett Day Upper School. At our school, students have myriad opportunities to take part in learning activities, both within and outside of the school day. Our teachers have already spent numerous hours planning challenging learning activities for our first cohort in the fall, but more importantly, they have thought deeply about the responsibility required of them to be strong, impactful mentors.

Every child who enters the doors of Bennett Day has adults that care about them for who they are as unique human beings. While it is important to think about teaching every student, we prioritize teaching each student. By truly knowing them as individuals, we can provide them with a crucial sense of safety, community, and home.

Like High Tech High, we believe that every student needs a champion. And that’s what we provide.

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