“Special Assistance Schools” have been setup to provide alternate education for young people who become disenfranchised from mainstream approaches to education.
The young people at the college have not found success in other educational settings and they come to us looking for something different. We provide flexible and holistic approaches to learning with each young person walking their own path. We walk beside young people in their journey, assisting them to discover what they want and then helping them to develop and take the steps towards their goals.
We prefer to describe the college as a ‘Youth Assistance College” as we work towards assisting young people to find their place in life.
I notice you keep referring to young people rather than students, can you tell me about that?
It appears to be a very superficial thing to do, changing terminology. However, we believe language use is a very powerful tool, which can influence the way we think about things. So, we use a different language from other educational settings, our school is always referred to as college and along with that staff are called mentors, it doesn’t matter what a staff member’s role is they mentor young people. We use the term young people as we are all students here, adults and young people alike, learning from each other.
Tell me about the young people who attend the college.
We have ninety young people across the campuses. Each young person comes to us with their own unique story; this makes describing the young people an interesting thing to do as I would need to talk about each person. The way we work here is to see and work with each person as an individual.
In saying that there are some characteristics which come up regularly in young people’s stories. Many have troubled pasts, having transient family lives, some have criminal, alcohol, drug and other issues. Even though each person is different, when they first come to us we see the lack of trust in their eyes and in the way they interact with us. They are wary of us and one can tell they have been let down by adults previously. Another common factor in our young people is their level of trauma; this means we as adults continuously check-in with them and each other about what is happening for them, in their lives, and how they are ‘travelling’.
Of course, for their own reasons, all our young people have disengaged from other educational settings. Their disengagement is the only criteria we have for enrolment at the college.
I was going to ask you about that, enrolment. What are the criteria and how does a young person gain a place at the college?
There are two criteria for enrolment, firstly the young person needs to be aged 12 to 17 years old and secondly, they need to be disengaged from other forms of education. The first is because we are a secondary college and disengagement is the reason the college was set up.
To gain a place at the college a young person can be referred from other organisations and support services or they can self-refer through a family member, parent or even a friend. Once they contact us, we have a process which ensures the college is the right place for the individual. As with other places our college does not fit the needs and wants of all; sometimes people thing we are a special education unit and others that we are a behaviour unit. While additional needs and/or behaviour may be part of the young person’s story it is their disengagement and wanting a different type of education that is the basis for enrolment.
We have talked about the young people, what about the staff and what it takes to work at Holy Spirit College?
The staff at Holy Spirit College are all ordinary people who come with an extraordinary range of life skills and experiences. I say extraordinary because the environment is dynamic and challenging, which requires a diverse skill set compared to those needed for working in a mainstream environment. Our young people have a broad range of life experiences and mentors need to come with a non-judgemental and respectful outlook. Also, passion and concern for young people who have complex needs are necessary to be good at working with disengaged teenagers and we need to recognise that many young people are leading a life that is vastly different to the one we lead as a young person. Other personal qualities needed are:
Being real and consistent
The young people have finely tuned sensors and can detect when people are being ‘real’ or fake’ in a very short space of time. For them having adults around who are ‘real’ is essential, they know who likes them or is judging them and react accordingly. No matter what they say, young people want adults who are authentic by being true to themselves and their values and to the values that society acknowledges as respectful. They also detect very quickly when someone is trying to be something they are not. For young people genuineness, fairness, honesty, reasonableness and having high expectations are all part of adults keeping it real; they want someone who is a mentor not a friend.
The young people also want adults who are consistent in doing what they say and saying what they do. They want to know the adults want to be and will be there every day, even when they themselves are not. Often the college staff become the most consistent and safest adults in the lives of the young people.
Confident and accountable
Staff need to be self-assured in their decisions and leave no room for self-doubt, or it can be too easy to lose control. Most young people suffer from trauma and other emotional disturbances and when adults are not calm, kind, confident and helpful, even in difficult situations, young people can lose their tempers. It is important that the adults deal confidently and calmly with any situation. Staff must be self-assured and always take the lead. The confidence displayed by the adult will keep things calm.
Our young people develop a high regard and trust in adults who can admit to making a mistake. The young people know we all make mistakes and are appreciative of adults who can apologise when required. When adults own their mistakes, it becomes safe for young people to admit to their mistakes and apologise when needed. This is one way they learn ‘stuffing up’ is part of our human condition.
Creative and Enthusiastic
The ability to think out of the box and combine both creativity and enthusiasm are needed to inspire our young people. Being able to put difficult concepts in plain and interesting words or to find new ways to explain and demonstrate topics and theories are often the most effective trait a mentor can possess. The adult’s creativity and enthusiasm will inspire the young people to be creative and enthusiastic as well. Bringing creativity into the learning process will have the effect of enriching the experience for both young people and mentors.
The staffs’ dedication to the young people serves as a huge confidence builder for both the staff and the young people. Once a young person’s strengths and struggles are known by the adult, no one is better equipped than their mentors to assist them. Our young people want to know and feel the adults are them for them even when they are not being particularly cooperative or ‘nice’. They want to know the adult can assist them in moving on from poor decisions, situations or actions and that the adults will not hold a grudge but help them mend the relationship. The young people want to know the staff want to be there.
Structured and flexible
All people need structure to succeed. However, as our young people may not have structure in their lives outside of the college, structure is even more important. The staff must provide the young people with a safe physical and emotional structure which is challenging to develop and maintain a favourable learning environment. At the same time the structure needs to be flexible to allow for unexpected events or issues to arise. Sometimes a well-planned activity has to be abandoned and an alternative arranged at a moment’s notice. The other part of being flexible is the willingness of adults to ‘give it a go’ to try new things and to learn along side of the young people. Through doing this we model that learning is a life time endeavour and not just for the young and also we have a lot of fun together learning something new or developing a new skill.
Observant and intuitive
Working at the college, adults need to be watchful and involved so they can foresee young people’s needs and address their concerns before minor issues become major ones. Often what is happening out side of the college can cause situations within the college and adults need to be able to sense the ‘mood or temperature’ of the young people and work with them to ensure situations don’t go wrong. Getting to know the young people and their stories assists mentors to be able to understand the young people when they are having a bad day.
Sometimes even a simple task can become a difficult interaction between a mentor and young person, due to many factors outside of a mentors control. It is at times like these that mentors need to offer hope and encouragement by celebrating any and all victories no matter how big or small the accomplishment. It is important for adults to remember how frustrating it could be for them to try hard to master subjects, techniques or actions outside of their comfort zones. This will enable the mentor to see things from the young person’s point of view and remain optimistic.
Sense of Humour
Adults with a good sense of humour and easy-going manner will more easily be able to cope with the stress of teaching our young people. Young people are very good at sensing which adults really enjoy spending time with them and sharing laughter and fun. Developing one’s sense of humour will protect you from becoming overly hurt due to personal quips, you need to be able to laugh at yourself and your mistakes.
Working with the young people can be frustrating at times and, to make matters worse, they may not have the maturity or skills to suffer quietly. Having a thick skin will protect you from burning out over thoughtless comments and language which you may feel is not appropriate. Often you need to remember that in their lives you are the safest person they can sound off at, and their outburst may have nothing to do with what is going on in an activity or with you.
It takes a person with a unique combination of traits to work with marginalised and disengaged young people. However, many of the character traits I have spoken about can be developed through knowing and wanting to work with the young people. Through understanding and developing the college’s working principles of Relationship, Respect and Responsibility young people and mentors alike work together on their learning journeys.
What does a typical day look like for mentors and young people?
How we all wish there was a typical day. One thing I can say is you will never be bored in working with the young people. Every day brings something new to learn and some unexpected moment.
What would you say to a person who is applying for a position at Holy Spirit College?
In thinking about working at Holy Spirit College I say one needs to do some self-reflection on the following questions:
- Do I have what it takes?
- Do I have the resilience an open mind and heart for working in a challenging and demanding environment?
- Am I ready for a change of direction in my career?
- How ready am I to learn new things, and go from certainty to uncertainty?
- Am I ready for change and challenge and to be challenged?
- Can I put aside most of what I have learned and adapt to a new and very different way of working compared to most educational environments?
Most of all I would say, if you have reached the end of this conversation and not had a stress attack about what could be in front of you then why not give it a go? It could just be the most frustrating, stressful, exciting and wonderful experience in your career. YOU could make a REAL difference in one young person’s life.