It’s Tough but Good, Being a Youth Worker in a School

by Annie Edwards July 27, 2019 A
There are a few misconceptions young people have about the youth workers they meet in school. When I first joined Canaan Project, very few of the young people I met during lunch time drop-ins bothered to learn my name and I blended in with the other female adults they saw in school and became a generic Miss. All of our team did and continue to do so – its only when we begin to refer to each other by our first names and reintroduce ourselves with our actual names that young people begin to call you by that name too.

I’m not sure whether its something about familiarity or a different level of professionalism, but when young people first learn your name – and that they can call you by it – there is a brief flash of excitement that they’ve crossed the line into something more familiar or personal than Miss or Sir.

Another misconception I’ve experienced is that youth workers get the holidays off if you’re based in a school. For the luckier of our species, there are some schools and colleges that employ youth workers as part of their pastoral team – and to you, I am only jealous! It always makes me smile when at the end of term I’ll say, “have a nice summer holiday, girls” and they’ll turn to me and say, “you too, Miss!”. I do have summer holiday plans thanks to annual leave, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they meant.

Blurring the line between teacher and friend is a difficult place to navigate in school as a youth worker. I’m not a teacher, and don’t have the same responsibilities or powers that teachers do in school. I can’t give detentions (although sometimes I wish I could!), I don’t set homework or require things from young people. Their participation in their interactions with me are completely voluntary – as frustrating as it is when a young person doesn’t show for an activity or a session, it’s not like I can put them on a behaviour report or send a letter home.

Yet what I can do – and this happens to be my favourite thing about being a youth worker in a school – is I can extend the level of support to both students and staff. Many times I’ve been a listening ear to a young woman in crisis, or have been a part of a referral and net of support for young women with the school, but more often than not we end up being someone that teachers and other staff like to talk to and share with too. Our role in school is to be a distinct support system, but one that compliments, builds on or simply serves the support structures already in place – be them complex and multi-layered, or just a few people in those sort of posts.

Jesus calls us to be salt and light as Christians, and being a youth worker in a school is a great opportunity to put this into practice. I’m already aware that there are some seriously salty and brightly-lit Christians already serving across schools as teachers, support staff or otherwise (obviously eco-friendly lights!), but being able to come in from an external agency gives us the chance to noticeably change the atmosphere in a space that we don’t normally inhabit. That’s what Jesus tells us to do isn’t it? Keeping our lights on the top of the hill or hidden under a bowl doesn’t really serve much of a purpose and it doesn’t make any difference to the space around it (Matthew 5:13-15).

For those of you in this position of being a generic Miss or Sir, and wishing you were finishing term today for the summer break too, here are a few of my top salt-infused tips for September:

  • Smile.It’s a bit weird walking round with a constant smile on my face, so that’s not what I mean! It isn’t weird though to be personable and make an effort to smile at a member of staff or a pupil. We carry the joy of the Lord – share it.
  • Get to know some staff.Some schools are huge, so please don’t try and get to know everyone’s names because I feel like that’s an unnecessary challenge! Choose some members of staff that you see regularly and just get to know them – their name, what they did at the weekend – that kind of thing. This is especially effective for the office staff; they’re the people you’ll see first every day, and they often are so run off their feet, having someone check in with them can make all the difference. Be sure to learn the name of the teacher who’s classroom you use for a session if that’s your set up – and always say thank you for the space.
  • Re-introduce yourself as many times as you need to.We have the luxury of being able to use our own names when interacting with young people at school. There is always a bit of confusion about who we are at first and where the line is (this could be another blog post in itself!), but we bring something separate to the school and this is a super-easy way to be acknowledged as that. Own what you do and own who you are in the space.

Have a great summer break – whether you’re sunning yourself or keeping cool in your office.