One thing that has become glaringly obvious over the past two terms with my leadership of our Year 8 cohort is that teenagers make mistakes…..newsflash!
On a daily basis I have had to respond to, comfort, delegate, punish and refer onwards issues and actions that these 13 and 14 year olds participate or create.
Many of these involve media and I can’t but help reflect on my own teenage experiences and remember the mistakes I made and the risky situations I put myself in where media was not there to magnify the situation or outcome.
I know that social media frustrates many of the teachers, parents and authorities I work with as they see how quickly an image can spread, or harassment can escalate. The problem is this is just a reflection upon something else that’s missing.
Over the past weeks I have been speaking to these young people about empathy. I ask them if they have ever made a mistake, I admit to them that I have made hundreds and many of them in my teenage years. Yet it was different, my peers couldn’t take a picture and post it online in 5 seconds flat, or create an anonymous profile to comment on my personality or appearance. My friends couldn’t “like” or “share’ someone else’s comment and I wasn’t left with ambiguity around what that meant.
I ask them if they too have made mistakes. They never deny it. I ask them if they regret doing some of these and what it would feel like if that mistake was publicised on social media. I am yet to have someone wish for that end.
We talk about forgiveness, we talk about empathy. We talk about everyone having the right to make a mistake and when someone’s mistake hits our “inbox” or “timeline” it is our choice, right then, to decide if we punish them for making a mistake and pass it on, or we show understanding and delete.
I think we could get a little better at this.
This term I have been fortunate to be a passenger on the Peer Mentor ride. I have been privy to boys developing into young men, showing leadership, with genuine compassion and interest in developing relationships with my students with disabilities. These young men have impressed me, but more importantly, they have connected and the benefits are immeasurable.
Let me put this into context. I was brought to my school with the establishment of a Unit for students with disabilities. A brand new challenge for my new colleagues, many of whom had never interacted let alone engaged with students with intellectual disabilities. Never had to “include” students with disabilities into sports days, assemblies, year level or whole school activities and schools events. I also arrived, prepared for the potential bullying and harassment of my students. Aware that students with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of bullying and furthermore, those with obvious physical conditions (such as cerebral palsy or down syndrome) being more likely to be excluded or made fun of. In an attempt to be proactive and prevent such things, I set about to have my students involved in all whole school and year level activities. I aligned myself and sought support from staff whom were enthusiastic, accepting and inclusive. The student response was overwhelmingly positive, it was a good start. Pushing forward from this point I was in search of something more than just short term class buddying, or one off activities here and there. Fortuitously I was approached by a passionate, energetic colleague who had taken on the challenge of working with a group of at risk, disengaged boys. Identified by staff due to their “disrespectful” behaviour, poor attendance and/or avoidance strategies towards class work. I jumped at the chance to work together to try something new! A Peer Mentor Program.
Whilst I had some apprehension and a slight mother cat protective arch in my back as we approached our first session, it was quickly defused by the enthusiasm and positive manner in which the boys approached the opportunity. I was astonished by their maturity and their commitment to potentially looking silly just to engage my students. What “cool” teenage boy wants to lose a tag game to a child who is hardly going to break the land speed record for duck-duck-goose? But they did, over and over and over again, chasing and cajoling them. We played several games in that first session and immediately there were some boys who stood out.
Initially I thought they showed none of the behaviours that led to them being “identified” as at risk, but then I started to reconsider. They showed great leadership, perception, energy, compassion, and respect. If these students have these qualities, yet seem to be some of the most disengaged in our school, then what is that telling us? They challenge, they think for themselves, they set an example and others follow. In a classroom where they are not challenged, not valued, not identified for their obvious strengths and given opportunities, I can imagine they could cause chaos! To me, they are heroic, prepared to take a risk and not wait until someone else was brave enough to dive in first.
After 6 short weeks, my students were trying things they would never have imagined. The greatest highlight – taking on the rock climbing wall! Secure and confident in the support of their mentors, they not only put one foot above the other to scale a wall physically, they also scaled to heights of confidence and self-esteem through embracing the challenge. This would not have been possible without the belief, support and encouragement of these young men.
They have inspired me. They are motivation to continue forging ahead with our vision to build the capacity of staff to establish positive relationships, supportive and challenging learning environments and to negotiate the learning process with our students. We must enable these boys and their like peers to flourish, to develop their skills and to lead their peers in positive endeavours, not to send them to detention because they challenge us.
Let’s not be frightened of non-compliance, sometimes it just proof they can think for themselves!
Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Susan B. Anthony