Jason Matthews reflects on his first six months in the field
Movement - isn’t that what’s life is about? Enlightenment is something we all strive for, though we do not really understand that is what we are doing. It’s something that we do naturally, in our social lives and work lives. We start off in a naive state, misunderstanding many of the things that we see, and gain experience with each day.
This process restarts with each new situation we run into. For me, working with children was new. I worked a lot with my peers, and working with children was something I had hoped to do, however I was very unsure about it within my first months in Youth Care. Uncertainty became a quick and seemingly long-lasting friend. I watched. Watching sounds like such an easy thing to do, and for months I did just that. Watching the youth I worked with, watching my co-workers, watching processes, watching rule making and breaking.
On coming into Youth Care I was truly wet behind the ears. But my watching gave me insight to what constitutes “power”, “control”, “strong team”, etc. Unfortunately, these terms are not always used or seen in the positive sense of empower, self-control, and team morale. The insights I gained were invaluable to my personal growth, as well as to my growth as a Youth Care Worker.
New kid on the block
On coming into this position I was aware that I was a "junior member" who had to prove to the team (and to myself) that I was competent and capable. This process seemed to take a long time. I had expected to reach a “comfort zone” quickly, and was a little thrown by the fact that somehow I wasn’t reaching this plateau. For one thing, the power and control that was being demonstrated from this strong team was not to my understanding. Only six months in did I feel that I had grown enough to feel comfortable asking questions about the things I was unsure of.
Entering as a newcomer a team that had existed prior to my arrival, I made certain assumptions: One, what was being said and done was right and well considered. Two, my own thoughts and feelings were primitive and uninformed. Three, I could not question the presumed “educated authority” of the team. These assumptions soon dissipated on seeing the shifts on the team, the different leaders emerging and challenging one another in terms of their attitudes or behaviors. My watching and waiting was finally paying off.
Only recently was I able to get this into perspective. Not that I hadn’t been seeing the processes; but rather that I hadn’t taken the time to make them concrete in my mind. This became my rebirth. I had taken meaning from what I was seeing and experiencing, and claimed it as my own. It was something that brought me out of the cocoon of mediocrity, the cocoon of feeling inadequate. It was a breath of air that opened my sails and enabled me to further my understanding of my role in the team. It solidified the fact that I was gaining insight and that I was able to see things and put them into perspective without second-guessing myself. Without this understanding, my personal feelings of inadequacy would probably have festered, leaving me in a constant state of confusion.
I look back on my first six months as a Youth Care Worker, and I take away from the experience the knowledge that growth takes time. No matter how much I immersed myself into this new culture, I was not going to learn until I was ready to learn. Although eager to figure things out for myself, it sometimes took several different perspectives from several different co-workers, or even youth, to provide the light I needed to understand what was going on.
Some of the major issues I had were around relationship building. Having come from school, I was very much under the impression I could easily provide safety for others and enable them to open up to me, thus building a relationship.
Was I surprised when a 15-year-old boy told me that I would never understand his situation! That, for me was a very powerful statement in my first week at work. How was I supposed to do this job if I couldn’t understand (or even give the impression that I wanted to understand) where a youth was coming from? I had worked alongside peers who had been assaulted, physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually. I was able to make them feel safe enough that they confided in me, told me what they were feeling as they experienced the situation etc. - but now I have a 15-year-old yelling “You'll never fucking understand!”
In my first week I heard many do's and don'ts from my co-workers. One of these was “Don’t take your work home with you!” This seemed to be a cardinal sin of Youth Care. For a while I thought of confessing to co-workers that I was breaking that rule, that I was unable to distance myself from my job, and that the youth were really rattling my brain. I analysed this situation over and over and decided that if I admitted to my weakness, I would be showing that I was not able to do this job - the job that I and others had thought I would be good at.
I tried so hard not to let the youth scramble my brains that I ended up presenting myself as uneasy, emotionally unavailable, distanced, disconnected. How could anyone build a relationship with someone like that? I realized that I was the root of this issue - I had to be more open, more accessible to the youth I was dealing with. And within that, time was of the essence. There’s a time for doing things, and there’s a time we wait. We wait and watch and learn and understand in the end. So too do the youth we work with and our co-workers.
So many and so fast were the lessons I learned that, without realizing it, I was becoming a valued member of the team. I had provided safety, I had become a confidante, I had enabled change within myself, within some of the youth, and the team. That was a major boost, one that I had been waiting for since starting in this line of work, affirming that everything comes in time. This led to my being able to trust myself and gain confidence in what I was doing.
The team I worked within was also a major factor in that. I learned from them, day after day. I gained a sense of self within the team.
I am astounded at how much I learned within this team. The “do's and don'ts” that I came to understand were reasonable enough - basically they spoke of the elements of the work that will “get to you” if you aren’t careful. Like when you feel tired take a break, for in this line of work there’s no room for a lazy, lethargic approach. I have learned that the hard way, often by unquestioningly putting program and team first without taking a second look at myself.
Self-awareness in this business is key. With every interaction with the youth I have learned as much as they have from me (or I hope they have learned something from me). But we remember that we are there for them and not vice- versa. We didn’t become Youth Care Workers to deal with the demons of our past, did we? True, sometimes we fall into thinking that this situation is reminiscent of a time of our life when we felt deeply about some things. The difference here is to recognize that before stating anything to the youth. Sometimes realizing that we do not understand a person's background is as important as understanding their past. However, when our past is getting in the way of understanding a youth, we have to delve into that. That’s where teamwork comes into play. It’s important for us to understand why we dealt with a certain situation in a certain way; it is equally important for our team colleagues to pick up any noteworthy quality about the interaction. “Checking in" is often the result of this: simply letting your teammate know that we saw something different in this intervention/interaction with this particular youth.
Finding our own “style"
Funny the things youth pick up from “grown-ups”. We see cigarette smoking, underage drinking, early sexualized behaviors, and think "they must have learned those things from somewhere”. When a child goes through some transformation, we often wonder whether the new behavior is real and sincere or just a copy or mockery of something observed within other youths. We are dealing with mimic machines. That is also an important consideration in our line of work.
Where I work, the youth often bottle up their emotions and then lash out at those who they see as safest to be around. Fortunately, that’s often one of us. Why fortunate? In my mind that means that we are doing our jobs. We are making an impact on that child. It is then up to us to “connect” our understanding of this situation to the youth, thus, helping them in meaning-making. How we do this is often very personal and individualized, since different youth have differing levels of understanding just as we who work with them are different.
It is also the case that there is no written formula for how we should deal with situations. Despite our wish for one when we first start this work, there is no manual to go to, no Situation #45 on page 231 with a written description in the back of the book showing how we can handle a situation.
So we kind of have this patchwork quilt of confusion and understanding. With each day there comes some new experience from which we can add an area of understanding - or perhaps add yet more confusion; we can settle some issue in our minds - or not settle it and leave it to focus on the next day. We soon realize that understanding human nature, and human nature in turmoil, is as exciting as it is challenging.
Another lesson I have taken away with me from my first six months in Youth Care is that we have to beware of the “bunnies” - as much in our work as in our lives outside. What are “bunnies” you wonder? The little, cute and adorable creatures. (Well that’s how many would describe them, but it’s not the description that I am going to use.) Yes, I agree they may look and act like bunnies, but really they aren’t. They are the people who manage to get into your garden and eat all of your carrots - people who get under the gate and feed off of your kindness, your caring nature, your reserve of emotional energy. I fear that at times there may be too many “bunnies” and not enough carrots. We have to beware of these bunny people, because if we don’t we’ll lose all of our carrots and when we need them to do our work we’ll be carrotless - void of emotional energies.
I have learned plenty about youth care, but one of the most important things has been “self care”. Things in my life which I took for granted need not always be so. For example, that just as we choose a career which involves much giving and acting in others' interests, so we must often choose to look after ourselves and act in our own interests. And that sometimes it’s better to make a decision that’s right for us, than to try to avoid the decision that is hard to make.