I have read more policy documents in the last month than I have read in the last two years. It has really hurt my head! Not because of the ammount of reading, but because of the lack of genuine content in the pages. A lot of the policy documents were very circular and led the readers round in circles. Others were full of legalise and bureaucratic jargon which really said nothing. I wish I could say that this was an unfortunate occurence which only happemned the once… but it is a trend I see every week.
Policy is useless if it is not easily readable and practically based. This is not an issue solely belonging to large government departments, it is an issue which we have seen in small, medium and large organisations from government, not-for-profit and corporate industry. People tend to make their policy very vague!
When a policy is vague the responsibility for action is also vague. You cannot go to you boss every five minutes because the policy is lacking. So what are we to do? Use our practice wisdom.
When the policy is lacking and your boss is vague your practice wisdom should kick in. A strong understanding of your sector and its ethics can guide you where your organisation fails to guide. Some argue that organisations are deliberately vague in policy to limit litigation and to place the focus on individual workers. If you can explain why you did wha you did and that it links with your industry code of ethics this also helps to limit your likelihood of litigation and also provides good practice to your clients.
If your policies are vague bring it up with your boss and human resources department as this will not help you in the long run. But when all is said and done policies cannot cover all aspects of the work we do as youth workers.
For a long time now there has been a conversation going on in youth work. A professional/ para-professional dichotomy which many believe is subversive to the current push for professionalization. A conversation which preaches resistance to the neo-liberal free market push which seeks qualification over experience and cheap labour over appropriate supports.
The issue with requiring professionalism of a vocation is one which is being faced by social work in Australia and has been faced by psychologists. One of the issues which has and will continue to rear its head is if youth workers professionalise they will require higher pay. Higher pay in a free market means less workers. Less workers mean less appropriate service provision. Another issue is that of training and qualification. With over 75% of the current youth work employ holding a two year diploma or less where do we set the bar. The youth workers association in Victoria requires a bachelor degree for full membership. The Department of Human Services however only requires a Certificate IV for its youth work staff.
At Ultimate Youth Worker we believe that the professionalisation debate is currently doing more harm than good to youth work. In the storm and stress that is youth work we need all the boots on the ground that we can possibly muster. At Ultimate Youth Worker we see the current debate thinning out the herd. It makes qualifications the epitome of the profession and damns anyone else. Youth work throughout history has bucked the trends and required youth workers to think outside the square. The current push for professionalization places us firmly in the square.
Any dead fish can float with the current, It takes a live one to swim against it. We need a new paradigm to the idea of current professionalization ideology. We need well trained, well supported qualified youth workers! What we don’t need is a broad swathe approach to attaining this. We need a whole lot more practical wisdom in youth work. We need a whole lot more passion. We need a whole lot more accountability. What we do not need more of is control in the form of restricting sector size. We need to set ourselves apart from the pack.
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This week we are learning through video. This is a short clip of Barry Schwartz speaking on Virtue etthics and practical wisdom. Enjoy and discuss.
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All too often in youth work we are forced to commit ourselves to shallow engagements with young people. Whether because of funding, policy or staffing constraints we are required to put aside relationship building to satisfy paperwork for bureaucrats. More and more young people are crying out for real support from youth workers, and more and more the squeeze of the bureaucrat tears our loyalty and professionalism in two. How can young people trust us when we can’t offer them the basis of trust…time?
In my mid twenties I was seconded to a small rural drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre as their Assistant Manager. I was excited. However that excitement barely lasted my first week. I was tasked with transforming the service into a dual diagnosis rehabilitation facility by our government benefactors within very stringent time lines and policy environments. One of my constraints was that a maximum stay with our service was eight weeks with many young people leaving before the sixth week. The government saw this as young people having an inability to stick at rehabilitation. I saw young people who did not trust the staff and could not develop lasting relationships in six weeks being oppressed by a system set up to help them.
I advocated for a change to our constrained time frames and was blocked. We showed client feedback and were countered by vagueties and innuendo. We even provided cost benefit analysis to the minister showing the need. Nothing. The idea of engaging with young people beyond a surface level was one which we just could not get the bureaucracy to understand. This led me to become as Schwartz and Sharpe (2011) a canny outlaw, Trading conventional wisdom for practical wisdom. I found every opportunity to keep a young person on for a second stay. I developed links to supported accommodation and provided staff to outreach to the young people. My rationale was that if we were to really effect change in our young peoples lives then we had to gain their trust and that required a deeper engagement than six weeks could provide. It was during this time that I began to develop my understanding of the need for deep engagement as a pillar of successful youth work practice.
Young people are seeking genuine care from youth workers. Care built on developed trust. To build this trust we must share life with our young people and this can only happen by spending time with them. I have worked in many corners of the youth sector, government departments, residential care, family services, homelessness and ministry; the same issue exists in every one of them. Policy constraints, lack of funding and a lack of trust from our young people. If we wish to turn the tide of societal disintegration we have to step into the gap. Our identity as youth workers places us in that gap. We believe that young people should have every opportunity to develop and the best way for that is to engage as deeply with them as possible. Sharing in their struggles, triumphs and developing a trust that can only come from a shared path.
We are accountable to many stakeholders as youth workers. In this role we must hold our accountability to our young people as our highest duty. To provide the best practice possible to our young people we must engage deeply and build trust. But how do we do it I hear you say? It is no easy feat. We will have to move counter culturally to the norm of current youth work practice. We must spend more time with our young people in meaningful activities rather than one hour appointments.
Deep engagement is difficult in our current service system however, it is the only way to build the foundation to work with young people to change their trajectory. Deep engagement is the benchmark for youth services provided by the team at Ultimate Youth Worker. It is also the central concept in all of our teaching, supervision and coaching around client engagement. We believe this so intensely that we routinely pass up work that is not geared towards enhancing engagement with young people. This is our number one imperative when working with young people. If you are not willing or able to engage deeply with young people do not engage at all!
In coming months we will discuss how to engage deeply with young people, however it may require you to shirk the ‘rules’ imposed on you. Are you willing to become a ‘canny outlaw’ to support young people more effectively?
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Over the past two weeks I have spoken to a number of youth workers and all of these conversations have turned at one stage or another to the topic of how much they should share about themselves with their young people. Some of the comments that I have heard were, “if I was asked I would tell them that it was a personal question and our work is not about me”, “our sector is to friendly with our clients, we need to distance ourselves”, and “how much do I share about myself when trying to build relationship with my young people”. My conclusion is that if our business is building relationships with young people then youth work educators need to spend more time on how we develop these relationships and on our identity as a profession.
When I started in youth work I too was prone to these questions. With some young people I shared about myself and with others I shut them out. I had no framework for how to deal with this and like many others I just played it by gut feeling. When I began my studies I thought I would be given some clarity on how to answer this question. low and behold I got nothing. Not even a push in the right direction. I was frustrated that there was no clear lines of accountability! If those in the academy could not help then I guessed I would have to work it out myself.
To build a framework I asked colleagues, mentors even my supervisors about what to do. BAD IDEA!!! For every person I spoke to I had at least one new answer. Nothing was adding up. I read books and articles on professional boundaries. Basically they said don’t sleep with your clients or do anything illegal and you will be fine. I was ready to blow up. How was I going to work this out???
In the end I had to come up with a framework of my own. It has formed the basis for one of the Ultimate Youth Worker pillars of practice: deep engagement. Over the years I have copped a lot of flak for my framework. Some say that I am to open with my young people. Others say I am to closed. Whichever way you will lean I have put my stake in the ground and intend to continue with this model until I find something better.
Before I give you the framework let me set some context. This afternoon I was chatting with a youth worker who spoke of the way his organisation teaches youth work students. They base some of their work on the work of a New Zealand based organisation who teach that youth workers need to have both professionalism and community focuses in their work. It is loosely based on the idea of ‘Hapu’ or extended family. A concept that is very much in line with Victoria’s Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary who believes that community has a responsibility to support and raise our young people. The balancing act of being a ‘professional’ and yet being a community focused person is difficult… but I believe it is also the key to the best outcomes for our young people.
So I have started to let the cat out of the bag. However, balancing professionalism and a community/extended family mentality is not enough. To many of our young people we fill relational holes in their lives such as those left by parent, siblings and friends. How do we keep the balance when they are striving to become our best buddy??? Two streams of thought always enter my mind and have become the basis for how I balance this conundrum.
In the Army here in Australia all leaders no matter their rank are taught that a good relationship with their team is critical for success. However if the lines get blurred because the relationship becomes more than that of a team and becomes a friendship things can get very messy. to combat this many of the leaders are taught the mantra “be firm, fair, friendly; but never familiar”. this little saying is the first way I balance my answers to those sticky situations. My young people are people not just clients! If I expect them to trust me and give me straight answers then I should show them the same respect. This doesn’t mean give them your home address and take them to your favourite watering hole. But within reason engage them in meaningful conversation as you would anyone else. Let your practice wisdom guide you but do not be afraid to share. I have spoken to sex offenders about my two little girls, told young people which suburb I live in (its a big place and I would be hard to find as I am not listed in the phone book) and even spoke about some of my failings (Yes, even we at the Ultimate Youth Worker have failed). The key to this is emotional intelligence. No more than you are comfortable with and as obscure as necessary for safety. For example, with some young people in residential care who had an affinity of following staff home I would often only say I lived in a particular local government area. With other young people I have no issue saying which housing estate I live in in my particular suburb.
The second one comes from my Christian youth work days and a bible passage which always spoke to me in this case. In 1 Corinthians 8 it talks about not letting your actions cause a brother to sin. This may be hard for some of our readers but I have found it to be a great help. In sharing with the above mentioned sex offenders that I had children I was pressed for details of their physical appearance. I had a split second to answer and in that time I believed that due to the nature of their offending and a knowledge of where their rehabilitation was at it would cause more harm than good to answer this question directly. I instead provided a half answer, “They look like me only shorter”. It was enough of a non answer for the young person to not follow up with more questions. When I worked in drug and alcohol rehab I was often confronted with the question “How would you know what its like”? As a manager I often had a suit and tie on which set me apart from the other staff who were jeans and t-shirt kind of people. Often I would just let it go by and not worry. However on one occasion I shared about my background growing up in a broken home in a rough neighbourhood in Melbourne. I shared that as a late teen I had a problem with alcohol and that one of my friends had supported me to reign it in. This led to a stronger relationship with that particular group but also many more questions which I had to fend off or minimise as I believed the answers would not have helped their recovery. One particular young man would ask incessantly how it felt to get drunk. As a person with a history of failed attempts at kicking the bottle I would often retort that it was a “painful experience for all involved”.
The main thing to think about on top of this is a safety issue. Is what your telling the young person going to cause you, your family or the young person undue harm or inconvenience. If the answer is yes then don’t tell them.
This is the bare bones of a framework that has taken me a decade to perfect. Over coming blogs we will discuss some scenario’s and further add meat to the bones.
A few weeks ago we stated that we would look at how to develop a behavioural lensto inform how you work with young people and colleagues. A lens that will help you understand peoples strengths and weaknesses, how to speak to them in a way that will help you develop your relationship with them and ultimately strengthen your work with everyone you come across. This week we show you the framework.
A while ago I interviewed for a managementposition. One of my interviewers was someone that if I got the role I would supervise. In the interview I was able to answer the questions and got along well with two of the three interviewers. The third interviewer was a blank slate. I couldn’t read him at all. The worst part was that he was going to be my direct. I was freaking out and needed a way to break through their blank persona.
A few years earlier I was managing a youth drug andalcohol rehab. I had a young person come to us straight from jail with a personality bigger than Ben Hur. Everyone thought he was great, the life of the party. He was a lot of fun to work with, but he was also really frustrating. He never followed through on anything!!!
These are just two people and a snapshot of their behaviour, but I am sure you can all imagine people like this that you have come across. Before I was shown this simple but most important framework people showing these behaviours were extremely difficult for me to understand or work with. Afterwards, with a little work, I have become a better judge of character and supportive youth worker.
DISC is a quadrant behavioral model based on the work of Dr. William Moulton Marston (1893–1947) to examine the behavior of individuals in their environment or within a specific situation (otherwise known as environment). It therefore focuses on the styles and preferences of such behaviour. For most, these types are seen in shades of grey rather than black or white, and within that, there is an interplay of behaviors, otherwise known as blends. The determination of such blends starts with the primary (or stronger) type, followed by the secondary (or lesser) type, although all contribute more than just purely the strength of that “signal”. Having understood the differences between these blends makes it possible to integrate individual team members with less troubleshooting. In a typical team, there are varying degrees of compatibility, not just toward tasks but interpersonal relationships as well. However, when they are identified, energy can be spent on refining the results.
The four behavioural types are Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness.
Those with Dominance and Influence behavioural types are more ASSERTIVE.
Those with Steadiness and Conscientiousness behavioural types are more RESERVED.
Those with Influence and Steadiness behavioural types are more PEOPLE focused.
Those with Dominance and Conscientiousness behavioural types are more TASK focused.
This graphic illustrates this more effectively.
Over the coming ‘Thursday Think Tanks’ we will delve more into these behavioural types and how they can help you to develop your emotional intelligence and practical wisdom.
In the meantime Stay Frosty!!!
As I said a few weeks back the team at Ultimate Youth Worker are currently developing our “Model of Effective Youth Work Practice“, which will guide how we work as youth workers and how we teach youth work to those in the industry. We are creating this guide for the development of practice excellence for youth workers as a step towards framing good ethical practice that every youth worker can do…not just those with a qualification. Our first pillar of successful youth work that we hold to is that of reflective practice. Our Second pillar of successful youth work is Accountability.
Accountability has gained a bad name in the human services sector particularly over the years that the neo-managerialist approach has entered the fray. Many of us have felt the prying eyes of government agencies and funding bodies who seek to impose their ideologies and boundaries on us and our services whilst asking us to do more. We have seen our supervisors change from reflective supervisors to hamstrung managers. We have seen our multitude of practices being whittled down to be pigeon holed in best practice manuals and funding agreements.
Accountability in our eyes is not the boss hanging over your shoulder making sure you follow the company line. Accountability is a set of checks and balances designed to support you as a person, your practice, your clients and your longevity in the field. Accountability means being open to many people. Your boss, your organisation, your clients, your husband/wife/partner, your supervisor, your mentors etc. Accountability is the glue which holds your goals together and brings focus for the future.
One of the best pieces of accountability I have ever had was initially imposed on me and is now one I can’t do without. In the early days of my career a really switched on youth minister mate of mine said I should get a mentor. Someone outside of the work I do but who understands the sector. Someone that i can vent to, ask for advice and who will make sure I keep some balance in my life. The guy who mentors me knows more about me than almost anyone else and isn’t afraid to tell me how it is. Do you have a mentor??? If not get one!
Over this past weekend myself and two other seasoned youth workers began a think tank support group for a young youth minister in Melbourne. We spent an afternoon together getting to know each other and hearing her vision for the local community she is working in. We asked her to become accountable to a process of ongoing support and development where we will push her to become the best she can be. Accountability in this situation means trusting a group of people from different areas of practice to guide her through strength and weakness to develop her skills to support her community.
Not all of us have great bosses and even more importantly good supervisors. This does make it hard to trust them with accountability. However to have balance at work we must be transparent and accountable. There may be time when we need to be ‘Canny Outlaws’ however we must also work within the systems we find ourselves in. If your boss or supervisor isn’t open to accountability that is more than managerialism ask them to help you. If they still aren’t there DO IT YOURSELF!!! Start a small reflective practice group. Develop your own practical wisdom. Find a mentor. Get external supervision. try, try, try. Be open to managerialism but do not let that be the benchmark, SEEK EXCELLENCE.
Being accountable means being open to people probing your practice as well as your person. Just this week my supervisor asked me to think about how my personality (which can be a dominant one) comes across in meetings and service delivery. I didn’t like having my person stripped bare but I accepted the criticism and actively sought out discussion with colleagues and mentors on how I can work on this. Being accountable means being active. You cant say you are willing to work on your practice and person and then kick up a stink when people call you on it.
Being accountable has many facets and more discussion is necessary. Be aware of your limitations and the boundaries which are imposed on you. Be the best you can be and don’t be afraid to open your practice and your person up to ongoing development. Accountability is what sets apart great youth workers and those we all roll our eyes over.
Over the last few months I have been encouraged to imagine what youth work might look like in the future. This has been an exciting process, however it has also had a disheartening effect on me. You see when you look forward you inevitably return to the present and you may even glance to the past.
Youth work as a profession has had a very rocky few decades in Australia and particularly over the past couple of years has been at the centre of immense change in the social services sector. Amongst the youth work fraternity this change has come in the form of associations for youth workers being instigated in some states with the purpose of gaining a professional membership of qualified youth workers. it has also had an assault on its professionality by groups such as RMIT University who have tried to envelop the youth work course into the social science stream so as to generalise it rather than have it as a stand alone course.
As I look into the past I lament the neo-liberal focus on professionalisation as meaning only having qualifications. I also lament the removal of practice wisdom from our day to day work and the replacement with rules and regulations. I lament that we have been so divisive in how we have dealt with each other as youth workers instead of banding together. We have made progress but we have also spent a lot of the time LOST in the wilderness navigating from glimpses of someone else’s map.
In their inspiring book “practical wisdom” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe believe that we need to re-imagine our work as neither rules based or incentive driven but as being driven by practical wisdom. They call for us to become ‘canny outlaws’ who buck the trend of standardisation and become more empathetic and learn from the collective wisdom of the sector. In their view we need to become wise through mentoring and practice development without the constrains of standardisation and rote learning.
As I gaze into the future of youth work I imagine a profession unlike any other. One where we mentor our new colleagues and share practice wisdom freely. One where gaining a qualification is inconsequential but where ongoing education is the benchmark. A profession where our work is so exceptional that we are envied by others and where it is so unique that it is not so easily quantifiable.. or dismissed as it is currently. I see a profession of diverse skills, qualifications and theories that work in harmony to support young people as a whole person. I see a bright future. To get there we must stop tearing ourselves apart and begin to develop our own professional identity free from the constraints of other professions and those that have been imposed on us by governments and the neo-liberal agenda.
Lets change the future!