Youth work is about helping better the quality of life of all youth. It is not the same as education as we typically think of it, where a student goes to school for eight hours a day and comes home to do homework. It is about what happens outside of school. The job of youth workers is to support youth in a holistic manner, taking into account their physical, mental, emotional, academic, and social well-being.
According to “Strengthening the Youth Development/ After-School Workforce Lessons Learned and Implications for Funders,” Yohalem, Pittman and Edwards point out the necessity of youth work due to the “research showing these programs are useful not only for problem prevention, but for growth and development and academic success” (2010).
I have always known that I wanted to work with youth, and I have been doing it since I was eleven years old. But what I also know is that I don’t want to be a classroom teacher, particularly in a public school. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the standards set forth by the federal and state governments that require teachers to teach certain things, while limiting what they can do in other senses.
In my current position, I teach dance at a YMCA. I have had the opportunity to develop relationships with all of my students over the years, helping them to be healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, academically, and socially. I focus a lot of my energy on fostering a positive environment and discussion around physical health, which is especially important in the field of dance. My students are all comfortable talking to me about what is going on in their lives and asking for help or advice when they need it. I also have spent countless hours helping with various homework assignments and studying for tests.
Finally, I believe that all youth workers should have a strengths based perspective when working with youth. Every child should believe that she or he is capable of great things and that we as youth workers will support them in whatever way they need.
**Side story about strengths based perspective**I was teaching a class with my favorite little Mariah (the one I wrote about last week who is on the autism spectrum. We tried the sticker chart again, but she was having a really hard day and it was not as effective as the first time. While I could have easily become frustrated at her outbursts, I focused my energy instead on being patient and understanding. In the middle of one of her episodes, I sat down next to her to try and figure out how I could help her best. I refused to send her out of the classroom. Through her short, tense breaths she was able to tell me she wished she had her stress ball. I scanned the room and realized I had nothing that could be used. So I made my hand into a fist and let her squeeze my hand. With every squeeze, I could feel her becoming less and less tense. Her breathing slowed to a normal rate and she was able to join back in class. At the end of class when it was time for stickers, she came over to me after all the kids had left and said she didn’t think she earned a sticker because she was just a bad kid. This absolutely broke my heart. No child should ever feel like she is genuinely “bad.” I explained to her how upset it made me to hear this and how much I wanted to find a way to help her make it through dance class without that feeling. We decided together that getting a stress ball to keep in the dance studio was the first thing we should try. It would be kept on a shelf near the stereo, and she would be allowed to go get it whenever she needed it. She and I both felt that this will be a good way for her to manage her emotions during class. I followed up with her mom when she picked her up, and will be bringing a stress ball to work with me tomorrow so that it will be there for her class on Thursday. As easy as it would have been for me to yell or give up and send Mariah out of the room, I would not have been doing my job as a youth worker. We play such an important role in the lives of youth, and we must always strive to be our best for them, even when it might not be easy for us.