Have you ever felt like quitting on your teenage child or a young person you have been working with?
I certainly have, though my passion to encourage teenagers to become the best they can be has led me to try ANYTHING to encourage them to become the best they can be.
I hope that Jacky’s true story will serve as an encouragement to you and you might be motivated by some of the secrets I am sharing in this journey I undertook with her.Jacky (not her real name) was a young girl I mentored a few years ago. She had a volatile temper, which students knew and many were the times her peers pushed that anger button to get a reaction. And, when she reacted, the language was vile, a fairly sure sign of a young girl lacking in self-confidence. Underneath this angry and tough exterior though, I was quick to discover, was a wonderfully caring individual who would make sacrifices for others and expect nothing in return. An example of this was the way she purchased a snack for a peer she did not know well who had left their money at home and was attending an event at the place where Jacky did casual work.
Jacky refused point blank to see a Counsellor, was absolutely shocking at her management of time, did not believe in setting goals because she had convinced herself she would never achieve them and was a great procrastinator!
I was approached by a colleague and asked if I would have a chat to her, as the situation was becoming serious, her ant-social behaviour was becoming disruptive and some colleagues actually believed she would be better off leaving the school and completing the final two years of her education elsewhere.
Jacky was happy to chat to me and I was comfortable for her to control the content and direction of the chat.
I asked her permission to make some notes while we introduced ourselves and she was happy with that. I also told her that our conversations would remain confidential, within school policies and procedures, and so we began a journey, best described as an amazing emotional rollercoaster.
The focus was simple. She would set some realistic, achievable goals for her academic subjects and I would monitor her progress, taking on the role of a non-judgmental Cheerleader. The key to this process, as I kept explaining to her, was that SHE set the goals. We had to ensure they were realistic and she had to learn what it meant to be accountable for the choices she was making.
I kept reminding her, when she slipped up, that Rome was not built in a day and she must persevere, so she heard a consistent and positive message from me.
At one of our meetings early on our journey, I shared a wonderful description someone had written of a young person which I had come across somewhere, that spoke to their inner and outer beauty, personalising it for her, telling her that that was the person I was seeing talking to me and leaving her with a copy to refer to whenever she wanted to do so. She didn’t say much that day, though I know she was appreciative and smiled her thanks. A small, yet significant step in making a connection with Jacky in a non-threatening and caring way.
As the months rolled on and she stumbled and fell, got up again, failed to meet a deadline, was in more trouble – yes, there was a fairly consistent pattern of behaviour – another relationship developed, this time between Jacky and my Personal Assistant, Sarah (not her real name), who was also the mum of teenage children at that time.
Jacky would often pop in just to say ‘hello’ to Sarah. Jacky was feeling safe and secure in this particular environment of the school.
Sarah and I sat down one day and, unbeknown to Jacky, worked out some strategies in our work with Jacky, thus ensuring that she could not play one of us off against the other, which she was most definitely smart enough to do. There were days, for example, when Jacky might try and avoid a lesson and pop up to our work area to have a chat to Sarah. Sarah would chat to Jacky for five minutes and then remind her that she needed to head to class. Jacky mumbled and Sarah, always with a smile, told Jacky that she would tell me that Jacky had missed a lesson. That was not the message Jacky wanted to hear, so she would quickly head off to class.
One day Jacky left a class feeling very angry that the teacher was picking on her, had her favourites and Jacky was being blamed for something she hadn’t done, while others were getting off scot-free. Jacky shot up to our work area and was ranting and raving to Sarah. I called Jacky into my office, closed the glass door (important for Jacky and my safety and security that people could see into my office) and told her that, rather than rant and rave in a public area, it would be better for her if she walked into my office, got everything off her chest and didn’t hurt anyone else by saying something she might later regret.
I pulled out a picture of the brain and asked her permission to share something about how her brain operates when she was that emotional. She was genuinely interested in this, my point being to develop strategies to avoid these outbursts eg, take a deep breathe and count SLOWLY to 20 and to encourage her to appreciate that she was making choices and every choice had a consequence.
Later I spoke with her about her swearing. I told her that I did not really appreciate swearing at any time though, if that was how she had to express herself at that time, it was okay.
She would walk into my office, rant and rave, and I would just sit listening, using eye contact and positive body language.
One day she challenged me and asked why I wasn’t saying anything? I simply smiled and said, “I am listening to you trying to understand how you are feeling.” Then she moved to a point where, after a silence, she would calm down and say, “Sorry, sir.” That was her apology for swearing or for making unnecessary and damning comments about a teacher or a peer which I was encouraging her to desist from doing. Then she would smile and visibly relax and we would continue to work on strategies to improve her anger management. On a few occasions, after our discussion, she would head off to find her teacher and apologise for her behaviour – Jacky was developing her self-confidence and becoming a more positive person.
Jacky had some talent in sport and I would make a point of watching some of her matches on a Saturday morning whenever I could. I had coached the sport she was playing, so was able to offer some technical coaching tips, congratulate her efforts when she had done some great work and so on. It was a point of common ground and often a useful conversation starter, especially when we might bump into each other in the school grounds.
Jacky had a wicked sense of humour and Sarah, Jacky and I had plenty of laughs, especially when Jacky was all wound up, had relaxed, chilled for a little and had gathered herself into a calmer place.
There were days when it was easy to give up with Jacky. Assessments not completed, silly behaviour getting her into trouble and a whole lot more, but I explained to her time and time again that school was where she must feel safe and secure. However, without consistent work, she might not be able to pursue her career interests which involved helping others.
I had done some work on sourcing the requirements for the career she was interested in and sat with her one day going through the qualifications needed on the University website (she had also done this prior to talking to me, an encouraging sign). She didn’t believe she was going to obtain the results she needed. I reassured her that, if she was prepared to work consistently, I genuinely believed she could achieve the desired results. I also contacted her teachers and asked them to keep me informed if Jacky was falling behind or did not meet deadlines and so on. Jacky was aware that I had contacted the teachers. We continued to refer back to her goals, adjust them up or down as she developed a mor consistent approach to her academic studies, so they remained achievable and realistic.
Occasionally I would send Jacky an email of encouragement, reminding her to meet the deadlines and why she needed to do this and so on. When she aced a Test on one occasion, a special moment occurred, as my email reminded her that she could achieve her dreams with consistent effort. I wanted to put that in writing as well as verbalise it. I was speaking to the potential she was not always able to see. Sometimes she acknowledged the email, often not, though she always told me she had read it and that’s all that mattered to me, as I was drip-feeding a message that was basically saying, “I believe in you!” and this would be positively impacting her developing brain and growth mindset.
Jacky made it through to the end of her final year at school which surprised many who thought the school might be forced to ask her to leave. She had supportive parents, although I wasn’t always comfortable that they knew how best to encourage her to become the best she could be.
On her last day at school Jacky popped in to see me to thank me for all my support, for putting up with her outbursts and so on. She gave me a lovely engraved Parker pen, an expensive bottle of wine and a card. On one side of the pen was my name and on the other a heart-shaped symbol and her name ‘Jacky’. She gave Sarah an identical gift. The pen remains one of my treasured possessions, a reminder that every young person is unique, has gifts and talents to be nurtured and I must NEVER quit on them. However, it was the content of the card that was even more touching. Jacky thanked me sincerely for putting up with her nonsense (her words), said she had learnt so much about herself and hoped that, in the years ahead, she would be able to show, through her life, how important that support had been to her.
Jacky must be close to completing her University Degree. I have heard from some of her peers that she is loving university and is so different – in positive ways – from her time at school, yet still talks about our school experiences with fondness and humour.
Many are the times when we are like the parachutist or sky rider taking a novice for a ride. We have to control the parachute and do our best to ensure that we land safely at our destination, no matter how choppy or gusty the wind or how risky the ride might be. We have to display calmness, empathy, tolerance, unconditional love and grace and speak into the future our novice cannot yet see. That is the Spirit of Mentoring.
About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook (where you are able to join a closed mentoring group) or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website Robin’s free Mentoring Matters daily podcasts (each podcast between 1.5 and 3 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available here.