Ernie Nightingale, retiring after 27 years as Principal at Ethelbert Children's Home in Durban, speaks to new child and youth care workers at their recent graduation.
On a day like this, at the end of my active child care career and at the start of yours, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some of the qualities I have observed and admired in good child care workers I have worked with.
They have a twinkle in their eyes
Al Trieschman once said "the youth becomes a twinkle in your eyes and you in his". I think you either like children or you don’t. I have not met anyone who has succeeded in fooling children that they are special and liked when deep down inside that is not the case. It is unthinkable that someone who does not have a passion for children or youth should want to work with them, let alone be an effective child and youth care worker. Good workers that I have known have made it their business both to know about kids and to know them. They have understood and known how to use the concepts of time and space when developing relationships with children. They understand that relationships are not formed instantly, and that we have to "do time" (often long and hard time) in the "kids' space" before either of us see the "twinkle."
It can be that many people enter the field of child and youth care because it's a job - "and surely anyone can look after children?" Such people would not appreciate or consider the impact their decision would have upon the children they work with. All children in care have been through broken relationships and a lack of permanence as part of their lives. Child care workers who are not committed to the profession and to the children they work with, simply add to this cycle of hurt, broken promises and unfulfilled relationships. It requires real commitment to "hang in" and "stick it out" when the going gets tough. Some of the best workers I have known are those who have understood the meaning of commitment and made this a priority in their practice.
Know their territory
Child and youth care workers do a very specific and worthy job which, when properly understood by their colleagues in other professions, is highly valued among the human services. Whether they are employed in children's homes, treatment centres, normal or special schools, youth justice facilities or in community or family agencies, their particular method of being alongside people in their life-space while working towards better function and development, is unique. Child care workers I have admired are strong on their own profession's knowledge and skill base “and clear about what they do and do not do when relating to other professionals.
Eager to learn
I cannot think of anything worse than a worker who always says "I know" when counseled about some aspect of work - only to continue behaving as before anyway. Workers who know it all and those who are unwilling to learn make life very difficult for themselves and for the children. I suppose a worse scenario is the worker who "learns" by going to courses, but never applies what he has learnt. Being, growing and learning are in fact the central ongoing activities of our work, and no-one ever stops this process of development, whether from books, colleagues or the young people themselves. Good child care workers are those who continuously ask, "please explain this to me" and then go away and work harder at becoming more proficient.
Ability to change and adapt
Coupled with the willingness to learn is the important quality of being able to adapt and change. I have often reminded our staff that every time a new child is received into our home, or a new staff member joins the team, the whole organisation should be willing and able to change and adapt to make place for the new person. This is never an easy thing to do. There are very real dangers to everyone, the organisation, the staff and the children, when workers are rigid, inflexible and unwilling to change. Of course change is always threatening to our equilibrium, and many feel confident and safe when things stay familiar around them. Among the good child care workers I have known are those who have not been afraid of new things, who have been willing to open themselves to risk, to become vulnerable to others and courageously to embrace change and growth. This is always easier when we feel confident in ourtselves and trusting in our team and colleagues.
Ability to see small changes as big news
Those who really understand what child care work is about seldom see neon lights flashing to announce a breakthrough with a child or an achievement in changed behavior and attitudes. They know it is all about the "little things" - sometimes so little that they would go unnoticed by others. Amongst the best child care workers I know are those who have been able to celebrate small steps of growth, to recognise every effort and achievement made by children and youth, and to respond in such a way as to encourage them ever onward.
Ability to take responsibility for their
It is too easy to become an "institutionalised" staff member. Child care work can be exciting, satisfying and fulfilling - but not all of the time - and some of the best workers I have known are those who have worked hard at maintaining a balance between their work and their personal lives. This is not an easy thing, because it requires an effort of consciousness and self-awareness together with sensible planning. I always wonder what workers have to offer children in terms of life experiences if they are not able to “live” a life themselves? Those I have admired are the people who do interesting things and stay interesting people.
They risk and sacrifice to support each
Children learn a lot by simply watching the adults go about their daily lives and duties. What wonderful teaching for children it is when adults are able to co-operate with each other, go the extra mile to help a struggling colleague and risk their own position in order to make things a little easier for someone else. I have worked with wonderfully kind and generous people who have been willing to place others before themselves. I do not know how we would have coped at times had it not been for those who were able to give of themselves selflessly in times of need. And I know that the children saw this and took heart from it.
They have a spiritual depth
No person can work in isolation, and in my opinion no care worker can keep going without recognising their own inner need for strength and guidance. Among the best child care workers I know are those who have been able to integrate their faith and hope into their personal practice with young people and their families.
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To you who are now about to graduate having completed your years of study and preparation, well done! You have worked hard and deserve this special recognition today. In extending my warmest congratulations to you on your success, may I also challenge you to become the best child care workers that you can be. You know that this will require determination and courage, but having begun the journey, do not give up now. And you also know that the children need good workers to help them “go out there and become one! May God bless you.
Ernie Nightingale, while principal of Ethelbert Home, was also the first National Chairperson of South Africa's National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW), a position he held from the inception of the Association in 1975 for twelve years.