Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work
4. The Many Hats Youth Workers Wear
One of the more challenging aspects of your work has to do with all the different things that are expected of you. In addition to your direct service with young people, there are agency and program responsibilities, administrative responsibilities, community obligations, and trainings to complete, and networking events to attend, and… well, you get the idea. You have many different hats to wear!
YOUR YOUTH WORKER HAT
Have you ever stopped to think how many people simply could not do the work you do? It’s true - most of society just doesn’t view young people the same way you do.
You see young people through a lens of possibility and potential, recognizing the strengths they possess. You have respect for their ideas and you honor their voice and views.
You bring your whole self to your work with young people – you show up, you connect, you take care to create a welcoming space, you patiently give what you have and what you know to help them grow. Even when they may not seem to care, you are still there, helping them take care of their needs.
The unique value of the professional relationship a youth worker has with a young person is an example of a hat that does not come in a ‘one size fits all’ format. In fact, YOU are the best tool in your youth worker tool kit and nobody does the work quite like you. So, wear this hat proudly!
YOUR ROLE MODEL HAT
When you’re dealing with multiple demands on your time and attention at work, it can be easy to lose sight of your real purpose - you serve young people so they can develop their unique skills and talents and that is the bottom line in everything you do.
And those young people are always watching you, wondering if you mean what you say and say what you mean, measuring your actions and behaviors, because they trust you and are eager to learn from your example.
In every decision you make, you need to answer this important question, “Do my behaviors and my words benefit the young people I serve?”
As a youth worker, you are the biggest factor in determining the impact that your program has on young people. A program can have a great facility or a wonderful curriculum, but it always comes down to the interactions and relationships that are built between the youth workers and young people in the programs.
YOUR STUDENT HAT
It is often a misunderstanding that your employer or your agency is going to ensure your on-going professional development. Some do, some simply cannot. In truth, it is up to you to continuously improve your skills and understanding each and every day. You can never be content to stop learning. This certificate course is only one opportunity that you will have over time that will help you be more effective in serving young people and impacting their lives for the better.
If your agency is able to provide formalized learning opportunities for you themselves, or they have the budget to offer outside training and professional development opportunities that you can take advantage of – go for it! Even if you think you know enough on any particular topic, there is always a benefit to refreshing yourself on the fundamentals. And because you continue to change and grow, you might be surprised to discover that there’s even something new for you to learn in looking at the basics through more experienced eyes!
Embrace learning as a lifelong pursuit. The student hat will never be out of style!
YOUR TEACHER HAT
Sometimes you’re directly teaching specific program curriculum. Other times, you’re indirectly teaching through casual interactions and activities with young people. Always, you’re helping young people learn about themselves.
You engage young people in activities that allow them a safe place to test the edges, to try out new ideas and experiences, free from judgment. You help them learn how to be themselves as they develop toward self-sufficiency.
By your example, by your presence, by your willingness to offer them opportunities to learn from your experience as well as from the program materials you provide, your teacher hat is a fitting symbol of one of the most beneficial aspects of the youth worker/young person relationship.
YOUR TEAMMATE HAT
Unless you’re self-employed, you’re part of a team. Working as part of a team presents both challenges and benefits. You have others around you who understand the work you do and can support you. That’s a great benefit. You may even develop friendships with your coworkers that extend outside of work.
Because of the trust and comradery coworkers typically develop, teammates often feel confident and comfortable confiding in one another. They routinely share their likes and dislikes, they sometimes grumble and complain to one another. That’s all good and natural.
The challenge in being a good teammate is that you want to listen and be supportive but you need to stay above the drama. There’s a real risk to developing cynicism about the work, your agency, or other team members if you allow yourself to be too engaged in the challenges someone else may be experiencing.
Your best response is probably just about the same as if you were talking with a young person you support. You’d empathize, offer encouragement, ask how you could help, and try to shift things to a healthier perspective. It’s no different with your coworkers. A good teammate helps everyone stay focused and engaged, especially when times are tough.
As a teammate, you likely have a supervisor. This person also has many hats to wear and when it comes to you, the most important ones are trainer, mentor, role model, cheerleader, sounding board, coach, and advocate.
Even though there is a reporting line between you, it is more helpful to see your supervisor as a teammate. This person has your best interests in mind and is committed to helping you grow and develop in your role. They are an asset to you, not an adversary. It would be a mistake to see that reporting line as an “us vs them” divider. You’re all on the same team, all working on a mission to make a better future for the young people you serve.
The teammate hat is like a giant umbrella that unites everyone under the same cause!
YOUR COMMUNITY AMBASSADOR HAT
One of the many challenges you face as a youth worker is that the general public does not fully understand the work you do. Some may see it as something that’s ‘nice to have' but most don’t yet see it as something essential, a 'need to have.'
There are a lot of reasons for that gap in understanding and you’ve gotten some insight about it throughout this module. Regardless of the reasons, the solution is the same: they need to hear from you!
When you can see yourself as a community ambassador, you will look for opportunities to spread the word about the value of your work. This could be indirectly, by modeling how to interact positively with young people in your community. Or it could be directly, by attending community events and showcasing your organization. Or inviting community leaders and local lawmakers in to learn about your program. Or attending rallies at your state capitol. Or meeting one-on-one with your elected officials.
You have the power to influence the field of youth work. Your actions impact the perception that the general community has about youth work. And that determines the amount of support youth programs receive from the community and from your local government, state legislature, or business community.
When you put on your community ambassador hat, you represent the very best of what you provide for the benefit of your community. Let them see what you know is true about the young people all around them.
YOUR FUND DEVELOPMENT HAT
If your agency has a specific fund development department, it can be easy to think they hold all the responsibility for raising the money your program needs to operate. In fact, agencies just can’t afford to leave this important task to any one individual or department – it truly takes a team effort.
Depending on your role, you may be involved in collecting data such as outcome surveys or program reports. You may be asked to provide relevant participant stories that highlight program successes funders are looking for in their grant requirements.
You may be asked to attend fundraising events and share your personal stories about working with youth and how the funding you receive is put to good use. You may sometimes be called on to help make a case for additional funding in order to expand the reach of your program, serve an emerging population in your community, or address a social issue that has come up.
Even though you may not have been drawn to youth work thinking that you’d be contributing as part of the fund development function, you are one of the greatest assets your agency has to shape the stories that move people to donate and fund your good work.
You have firsthand information – direct knowledge and experience of the value of your program. You know how your program is impacting the young people it serves. You hear their stories, you feel their struggles, you celebrate their successes. That’s exactly what your fund development team needs to know.
So, rather than seeing requests for reports and data and stories as an inconvenient part of the job, embrace the role you play because that’s exactly how you’ll be able to help even more young people.
Bottom line: this hat helps pay the bills. Do your part!
YOUR ADVOCATE HAT
Off the top of your head, what comes to mind when you think of what it means to be an advocate?
- A spokesperson?
- An activist?
- Someone who stands up for others?
- Someone who defends the rights of others?
- A person who supports others to make their voices heard, or to help them learn to speak up for themselves?
An advocate is all of those and more.
And just as there are many different ways to think about what it means to be an advocate, there are many different ways to put your advocacy into action:
- As an advocate for young people
Being a youth worker, you naturally advocate for the young people in your program just by the work you do. While that’s great, it just isn’t enough. You’ve got to think bigger…
- As an advocate for your program
Being vocal about the need for your program, proudly sharing the mission of your organization, and showing others the results your program achieves is a basic requirement for many youth workers. While that’s great, it just isn’t enough. You can still think bigger…
- As an advocate for your profession
Being a professional in the field of youth work gives you a unique platform. You have the experience that allows you to see what would make the work even more meaningful, what is needed to help yourself and other youth workers grow and advance. Adding your voice to the message we need our decision-makers and policy-shapers to hear is great, and there’s still more you can do. You’ve got to think bigger…
- As an advocate for systemic change
Systemic change is a very big idea and at first it might be a little challenging to wrap your head around.
Often youth programs address symptoms of problems but not the root cause. Because youth workers are so focused on meeting the immediate needs of young people in their programs, they can forget to look at the bigger picture.
This excerpt from “Exploring How an Idea Developed in Business Applies to Youth Development,” was written by Stell Simonton and published in Youth Today, October 12, 2017. It provides a perspective that will help shed light on how that bigger picture can look:
“Teaching grit as character education, for example, has been directed at low income children in place of addressing the very real inequities they face. Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great, but if as a society, we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax…”
Looking at the bigger picture would have us not only address the needs of youth in the moment, but really get to work addressing the direct causes and conditions that create the needs in the first place.
Many young people face real injustice and in your unique role as a youth worker you have the ability to truly address and advocate for improved social, economic, gender, and racial equity. Thinking bigger doesn't have to be scary, but it does require you to step up and work toward a more just society.
There is literally no end to all the ways you, as a youth worker, can be an advocate. One of the biggest outcomes of all your advocacy work is education – helping others understand the critical need for youth programs and recognize the valuable contribution your work makes to their communities.
Can you imagine if everyone instantly understood what you do when you tell them you’re a youth worker? If everyone understood youth work as an essential service that our society simply cannot afford to overlook or take for granted?
That may sound like a dream right now. But you can help make the dream a reality.
The advocate hat is one that no youth worker should ever leave home without. Advocacy is just too important to ever be left out of your ensemble. It ought to be written right into your job description: action-oriented, vocal, passionate, unfailing champion for youth and social justice.
YOUR PROFESSIONAL HAT
Professionalism. Very few people outside the field of youth work consider it to be a profession. Even within the field, there are a number of youth workers who wouldn’t see it as a profession either.
But bringing a level of professionalism to the field of youth work is exactly what will help the general public finally appreciate the enormous value of the work you do.
It’s an earned respect. It grows out of adhering to principles of practice. It demands your discipline and perseverance. You’ll explore this in more depth in Focus Area 4: Ethics.
One thing all professions advance is the need for their practitioners to continually keep up with all the information they can about advances and ideas within their field of practice.
When you connect with people who share your passion for youth work, you’ll find new ideas, encouragement, support, and resources to help you make the most of your work and advance your career in the best way you can imagine.
There are any number of ways you can find and connect with likeminded people in your profession. You can keep in touch with the wider field of youth work by joining an association, or participating in a networking group, or subscribing to publications, or bookmarking some online resources that interest you.
Spend some time searching the web to find publications and groups that interest and resonate with you. You’ll find some links here to help jumpstart your exploration.
When it comes to your own career development, how you define and pursue professionalism will be a key to your long-term enrichment and job satisfaction.
The hat of professionalism looks good on you!
HOW BIG IS YOUR HAT RACK?
Admittedly, there may be many more hats a youth worker must wear than what was covered here. How many others can you think of? The hats we chose to highlight have to do with the bigger picture perspective about your role, not as much about the day-to-day activities of your work.
The idea is to encourage you to lift your head above the daily routine from time to time. Expand your vision about what’s possible for you to do as a youth worker. Try on some bigger roles that you can play.
Regardless of which hat you’re wearing at any given time, you’ll find you have to be fluid in shifting between the different roles a youth worker plays; friend, confidant, disciplinarian, leader, guidance counselor, activity director, janitor…
This is one profession where variety in your work day takes on a whole new meaning!
With all the different hats you wear and the many demands of your day, it can be easy to lose focus on the one priority that remains constant. That is to ensure that you're always mindful of the impact your actions and decisions will have on your relationship with a young person.
Adam Arnold is a licensed psychotherapist that has worked with young people in a number of settings. He's also the developer of The Democratic Youth Engagement (DYE) Model which focuses on ways to collaboratively work with young people. In this video, Adam emphasizes that how you choose to engage with young people must always be viewed through the lens of how it will impact the trusting relationship you have.
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