How you can inspire teenagers – a true story

How you can inspire teenagers – a true story

Can you remember times during your adolescent years when life seemed to be particularly hard; you jumped one hurdle and then something else occurred and knocked you down; up you got again and something else happened? Small rocks to stumble over, bigger rocks to obstruct your pathway.  How did you respond?

Thinking about this led me to some work I did a while ago when I looked at how youth mentoring programs helped young people coming from a high risk environment. I created a check-list, if you like, that would be invaluable to anyone mentoring such a young person.

As I thought some more, I was reminded of the years I spent informally mentoring Nick, a teenager from a high risk, volatile environment in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. I learnt so much about life from many interactions with Nick – an amazing young man who inspired me through the way he overcame adversity.

Nick arrived at the School where I was teaching at the time and was placed in the boarding house of which I was the housemaster.

Nick’s mother was a domestic servant and he was, in his own words: “.. a young man from the townships who could not even speak English. I was scared but excited. I had to prove myself. Here were the white boys who had privileged positions all their lives. Their primary education was preparing them to be the bosses, whilst mine was to serve their interests. Here I had to compete with them on the same footing. I can tell you it was not easy.”

10 proven tips to inspire youth from high risk environments

There were approximately 60 to 70 boys, aged between 12 and 18 in each boarding house. Nick had to settle fast, as well as find his way in a large new school. He was a keen sportsman, who played rugby and cricket, though he was particularly fond of Football (Soccer). Nick attended the school on an academic scholarship, so clearly his potential had been acknowledged by the company which supported him.

There are millions of young people like Nick and what follows are 10 ways, not in any specific order, youth mentoring programs (and individual mentors) can help young people from high risk environments reach their potential. As I share these 10 tips, I’ll weave Nick’s story into the journey.

1. Help the mentees realize their potential.

Nick had strong opinions of his own, yet he was prepared to listen, weigh up other viewpoints and then decide how he would respond. Arriving at a new school, which he desperately wanted to attend, he initially struggled for a variety of reasons. Nick writes: “Typical of white preconceptions, they thought I was “thick” [stupid] mainly because I was black and I had had a bad education for about seven years. They put me in the bottom groups or “D” classes. Here was the opportunity to prove myself. I knew there were people who believed in me ….. through perseverance I climbed up the ladder. Everyone knew there was Nick who was counted among the “boffins”. I knew I was not a boffin, just a somebody who had, as our Human Kinetics teacher used to say, ‘spine, guts and determination’ … “

Nick seized every opportunity that came his way and sought to make the most of it. My role, initially from a distance, was to encourage him and allow other staff colleagues who taught and coached him, as well as older students in the house, to offer him further guidance. As he moved higher up the school, he and I began to converse more.

Never underestimate the importance of significant adults in the life of a young person. Mentors should actively encourage mentees to seek out more significant adults to take on the role of non-judgmental cheerleaders in their lives. In this way youth will build an ongoing network of positive support around themselves.

2. Develop positive values in mentees.

It is so important to model positive character qualities and values. I only realized how important my encouragement of Nick had been after he had left school. He was at university and I invited him to help me facilitate a non-racial youth empowerment symposium I was organizing. As he was one of the founding participants in these symposia, he had much to offer. He was settling into university life and having to deal with further challenges. After the symposium he sent me a brief note: “Thank you for the ‘talk’ we had on Saturday night. It’s very rare that I actually get someone who I can relate my problems to; but you are there and you certainly revitalized my motivation about my whole career at Varsity [University]. Now what I say to myself: if you can be able to do so much, then why can’t I? – and that is what keeps me going.”

Through his time at the school, Nick picked up a variety of morals and values and, as he moved on to university, these began to shape his personal value system.

3. Guide mentees towards more reliable attendance at school, further training or work.

Although Nick had challenges to deal with at school, at no point did he not want to attend. As he mentions above, he was motivated to ‘climb the ladder’. Nick shared his experiences with a group of students after he had left school: “They say that if you do not know where you are going, you probably will end up anywhere. You must have set yourself realistic goals. Have them written down. There is nothing as gratifying as ticking off those goals that you have achieved. You are essentially measuring and awarding yourself. You must have a role model: see yourself as that person and work towards that.”

One of my roles had been to guide Nick on the goal-setting journey. The goals were his and we reviewed them every three months during the last two years of his school career. He was focused and had a reason to attend school and, it’s along these lines, that mentors can open up discussions with mentees. If they know there is someone who cares about them, listens to them and helps them find meaning and purpose in their lives, mindset changes will occur. The fact that Nick was accountable to a non-judgmental cheerleader, motivated him to work hard to achieve his goals.

4. Improve the social and communication skills of your mentees: in relationships with family and extended family; with a focus on behavior, attitudes and appearance.

What impressed teaching colleagues about Nick was the pride he took in his appearance. My guess is that, having come from a disadvantaged, high risk environment, Nick seized every moment he could to reach his potential. He knew how important it was to take a pride in his appearance, as we spoke about this at house meetings, had uniform inspections and we tried to instill in the students at the school the importance of being proud of who they were.  Coach mentees about appearance, body language and positive communication skills to enhance their options as they move out into the world beyond School.

Nick created a network of support around himself. In addition to his mother, the sponsoring company and some close peers supported him. Nick also had strong support from the family who employed his mother. In addition to teachers, Nick heard messages from a variety of people he trusted who believed in him.

Nick, after leaving School, and addressing students at the non-racial school I had moved to as a headmaster, said: “Always think positively about yourself and the situations you find yourself in. You must see problems as opportunities to prove yourself. Believe in yourself and your ability to tackle problems. Have a positive self-esteem, don’t be arrogant. There are no failures in this world, just men and women who don’t know how good they are and they are not willing to find out.”

5. Improve the self-image of your mentees.

As the non-judgmental cheerleader, the mentor plays such a significant role in the life of the mentee. Trust is established and the conversations go to a deeper, more personal level. As I experienced with Nick, young people will share more of their personal feelings, something boys find much harder to do than girls.

Nick shared some of that thinking in the previous point. We talked about goal-setting, community service and lots more. Yet it was the comments Nick shared with students that provide some insights into how he developed his self-esteem during his school days: “Mistakes are learning opportunities. Do not be afraid to make a mistake. You can only learn from your mistakes. As the old Chinese proverb says, “success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” There are many obstacles that you have to overcome; there are people who want you to make mistakes so they can be happy. They channel their energies into making sure you fail. Don’t worry about them. They are the real failures, not you.”

A smile from a mentor, a brief positive comment that is relaying the message, “I believe in you!” must never be underestimated.

6. Expose your mentees to positive new experiences such as community involvement, different cultures and activities.

One way a mentor can successfully impact the life of a mentee in a high risk environment is to take them out of that environment and talk about possibilities. In a way it’s a Catch-22 situation. We want our mentees to become pillars of their communities and be the change-agents, though, maybe, as Nick experienced, it’s important to remove oneself from that high risk environment for a while to discover who we are.

Nick took advantage of the activities on offer at school. If he had an issue, it was deciding where to curtail his involvement as he approached his final year at school.

Nick and I firmed up our relationship when he volunteered to attend the first South African Youth Symposium (SAYS) I organized in the late 1980s and which was hosted by our School. The purpose was to bring students and teachers from all races and cultures in South Africa together, to meet, to break down racial barriers and assumptions, to have fun together, to be challenged by keynote speakers and then to return to their communities to become positive change-agents preparing themselves and others for the post-apartheid South Africa whenever that would inevitably occur.

The school students helped me organize the conference and were the hosts when students from all around the country arrived in their busloads.

I watched with pride as Nick mixed with anyone and everyone, had lots of fun, joined in the debates and revealed some significant leadership skills.

What was occurring was that Nick was identifying with some deeply held beliefs of mine that he had probably not yet fully appreciated, seen the risks being taken to organize the symposium – visits from the security police and I was pretty sure my telephone was being tapped – yet, together, we were buying into the vision of what a non-racial South Africa would look, feel and be like. They were exciting times. Nick and a couple of other students were active helpers for a couple of years as I organized these symposia – they were great role models to all their peers.

7. Enhance a sense of social responsibility in mentees.

It is generally agreed that too many adolescents live in a world of instant gratification and entitlement, with too much focus on ‘I’ and not enough focus on ‘WE’.

As mentors we can encourage our mentees to think of others and explore with them small things they can do to become positive change-agents in their communities. When they feel accountable to the mentor and supported, you will be amazed at what these young people can achieve. I have seen so many examples of this during my teaching career.

A few years ago, for example, I worked with two students who had a strong sense of responsibility to do something to support cancer research. They organized a significant fundraising event. My role was to encourage, guide and help them sort out the financing of the activity and be present on the day to support them – the authentic cheerleader. They raised over $2000 from the activity and, better still, the next year they mentored two younger students who wanted to carry on what could well become a legacy started by two of their older peers.

Nick wrote: Help others if you can. It can be very satisfying when you know that you made another person better off. People will return the favor. Start now while you are still at School and make it a habit!”

8. Improve conflict resolution skills of mentees.

Coach young people how to deal with conflicts. This is a significant contribution mentors can make in an adolescent’s life journey, especially in the twenty-first century where so much communication occurs through social media. Youth have little understanding about how to interpret facial gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language and a process to follow if they are in conflict with someone and don’t wish to see it escalate.

Many mentors I have trained over the years have made me aware that they themselves need to improve their skills with regard to resolving conflicts. Conflict resolution is a topic I include wherever and whenever I can. Not too long ago I shared the process with a student who was keen to resolve a wobbly relationship issue. She reported later that she had learnt a lot from the experience and the particular relationship issue had been resolved positively.

One of the most significant conversations I had with Nick occurred as a result of a personal conflict he experienced during his final month at school. He had been an outstanding prefect that year.

One Saturday night I walked around the boarding house and came across an angry and frustrated Nick. I invited him into my office so we could chat away from his peers and other students.

He told me that he wanted to resign as a prefect.

Earlier that day he had said farewell to one of the black kitchen staff members who was leaving the school. Mason (not his real name) had often played football with Nick and others, so they had a healthy respect for one another. Nick was regarded by some of his peers as fraternizing with Mason and some unnecessary jibes directed at Nick had been made. He had had enough of this type of talk and no longer wished to be in a leadership role. He simply wanted to finish his final exams, leave the school and head on to university.

Nick and I spent two hours discussing life. We shared stories. We empathized with one another as best as we could. Significantly, Nick felt listened to, respected and cared for and he made a point of coming to see me during the following week to thank me for the time we had spent chatting.

Nick did not step down as a leader. I’d like to think that the discussion we had that evening gave him tools he could use in life beyond school whenever conflicts occurred within his life and in his work place.

9. Encourage your mentees to make positive life choices.

The conversation Nick and I had that Saturday evening included a lengthy discussion about positive life choices, the focus also on how, as individuals, we become positive people of influence in our communities. The mentor takes on the role of Devil’s Advocate.  I usually tell students that I am taking on that role and, in case they don’t understand the term, I explain my role,

Nick shared his experiences with students after he had left school and made a particularly telling point: “Do away with an inferiority complex. I have heard some people say that blacks have short hair because they have short brains. They say that is the reason why some of our people have hair extensions or use hair straighteners or grow dreadlocks, so they can be clever. Well, that is not true. We are very good. We just have not had the opportunity. We must get out of that mentality that “The baas [white boss] is always right”.  Your color does not determine your intelligence … You are just as good as everyone else. Do not be afraid to challenge authority, but do it the right way. Eventually they will listen to you.”

The mentor, remember, will often speak to the potential the mentee might not yet be seeing. That’s another reason why a mentor must NEVER QUIT! from the mentoring relationship, no matter how challenging things might be.

10. Help mentees become self-sufficient, productive citizens.

This must be a key personal goal every mentor of an adolescent should set for themselves as they enter a mentoring relationship.

Have discussions about different career pathways, what being a responsible citizen involves and the importance of managing finance. Encourage creativity and entrepreneurial thinking. Encourage your mentee to take non life-threatening risks and then be there for them if they fail while attempting something that has moved them out of their comfort zones.

By the time Nick left school he had become a self-sufficient, responsible and productive global citizen who had identified his strengths. He went on to gain a Business Degree with Honors and eventually took up a management position. Sadly, his life was cut short by illness when he was in his early forties.

Concluding thoughts

These, then, are ten possible ways youth mentoring programs can help young people living in high risk environments reach their potential. As a result of their experiences, many of these young people might have built a wall around themselves and will find it difficult to be vulnerable. Plenty of empathy, sensitivity and even more listening is required from a mentor. Throw in a few laughs (where and when appropriate) – Nick had a fantastic sense of humor – consistently turn up for meetings and a mentor will eventually connect with mentees at a deeper level.

I have shared parts of Nick’s story in this Blog. I was incredibly proud when he stood in front of my school’s assembly, shortly after he had graduated from university, and shared his experiences in an address entitled: “Brace Yourself! It’s Tough out There!”

It’s therefore appropriate that Nick has the final word:

“There is a Zulu saying, ‘Umuntu ngumumtu ngabantu’. This is a version of ‘No Man is an Island’. We do not have to compete against each other all the time. Do not climb on the heads of your brothers and sisters to get to the top. If you do that, you must remember that ‘the higher you are, the harder you fall’.

“All these things that I have mentioned [in this Blog!] are possible because of God. Remember that God only helps those who help themselves. You must also believe in yourself to make things happen. No-one is going to make them happen for you. As one bumper sticker read, “The only free lunch is found in a mouse trap.” Get advice from other people. Have a goal …. and, remember, the road to success is always under construction.”

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 using their God-given talents. 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 New Zealand 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 Facebook or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website  Robin’s free Mentoring Minutes daily podcasts (each podcast between 2 and 4 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available hereAbout 45 blogs have been converted to short video clips, all of which are linked to encouraging youth to reach their potential. These are available on YouTube