Oakdale Site Facilitator Audrey Chia gives us a glimpse of humbling experiences that have changed her perceptions of urban youth.
Whenever I meet someone new or catch up with a long-time acquaintance, I’m inevitably asked (as we all are): ‘So what do you do for a living?’ or, ‘What are you up to now?’ When I tell them about my role as a site facilitator for a non-profit in Toronto’s inner city, they usually respond about how wonderful and rewarding my work must be for such a noble cause. Although this is very much true, often the everyday experiences of running program seem far from gratifying—any child or youth educator would tell you that. A lot of my daily experiences involve waiting for students to settle down, dealing with arguments and fights, constantly supplying pencils and erasers, cleaning up messes, talking with parents and teachers and of course, trying to get students to actually do their work.
Hold on here—this article isn’t meant to be a rant. As I mark my sixth year at Oakdale Park Middle School, I can’t help but reminisce at my past five years, and how—by a special turn of events—I even came to lead this program. I’ve distilled my thoughts into these five lessons.
When I was first given the opportunity to work with inner-city youth, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Growing up, I don’t recall having a long or meaningful conversation with a racialized or marginalized person. I didn’t have substantial volunteering experience and didn’t quite know how I felt about interacting with pre-teens, let alone working with ‘at-risk youth.’ I did, though, watch movies like “Freedom Writers,” which gave me the space to dream of changing lives in an impactful and dramatic way just like Hillary Swank’s character, inner-city teacher Ms Erin Gruwell. Boy, was I ever in for a rude shock.
The girls were loud, rowdy and downright inappropriate most of the time. They had names I was too afraid to say lest I mispronounce their name. I shied away from the boys, and my obvious lack of basketball skills didn’t make things easier. I didn’t know what they were talking about more than half the time. In short, I had absolutely zero impact on them. Our worlds seemed to be too different. Any aspiration I had to influence their lives dwindled as time went by and was replaced by frustration at my lack of courage and their wild behaviour. What I came to eventually understand was that my fears and judgments about them ultimately hindered me from being an effective role model.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have tried to be a hero, but a learner. Relationship-building is a two-way street, not a top-down process. Now when I want my students to learn something from me, I first model it by constantly learning more about them. Slowly but surely, we start to understand a little bit from each other’s worlds, and that’s when truly exciting change begins to happen.
Some of my students are raised by single parents, step-parents, or grandparents who either live off welfare cheques or struggle to make ends’ meet to avoid government assistance. About half of them live in Toronto community housing. All of their parents are immigrants who came to Canada in search of a better life, wanting their children to pursue an education higher than their own. And many of my students are still a year or two behind the academic level they should be.
So when the odds of succeeding are stacked up against them, one may ask, what’s the silver lining here? Well for one, I get to witness first-hand when students flourish and excel academically and socially. I get to be an added voice during child-parental conflicts or student-teacher strife. I get to celebrate little victories and grieve hardships and setbacks all the time.
Standing alongside one of Toronto’s most under-served communities has been a privilege for me because it has given me a real opportunity to see how the bottom majority in our city lives. Their unique personalities, stories and genuine struggles have helped shape and confirm my values and have made me think differently about personal disappointments and challenges. I am more thankful for the upbringing I had, and feel more responsible to bridge the growing gap in our city between the haves and have-nots.
It’s hard for millennials like me to stick to things. We live in a world obsessed with finding the next best thing. It seems like we switch jobs, university programs and relationships as often as we update our social media status. When it comes to improving neighbourhoods, sustainable community development requires—actually, demands—people who will be in it for the long haul. John Perkins, community activist and author of “Restoring At-Risk Communities” suggests that a person should stay in a community for twenty years in order to be effective.
I wouldn’t even consider myself a long-timer, yet there have been times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel. Sometimes it was because I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted to, other times I felt like I should be doing something else with my life. Yet as I mull over my disappointments and setbacks, it would always become clear to me that I shouldn’t quit.
Most recently, I’ve started to see the fruits of my labour through different relationships that have built over time—with students, their siblings, parents, school staff. If I had left, I wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits I’m experiencing now. Some days are still better than others, but I’ve also learned that simply showing up and being present in their lives is more than half the battle.
The well-loved professor and author Howard Hendricks said, “teaching that impacts is not head to head, but heart to heart.” This is similar to the well-known adage among educators: “students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I have found these words to be so true and powerful, yet difficult to embody.
I take a lot of things seriously. I’m one of those people who thrives on order, structure, organization and competency. As such, it can be very difficult for me to let my guard down. It must be God’s sense of humour to place me with some of the funniest characters. Although it has taken me at least three years to finally start joking around with my students, ever since then I’ve probably developed the most genuine relationships because they see me as a real person, not a robot or an authoritarian. In fact, some of them make fun of me quite a bit and that’s a good thing.
My kids didn’t need a picture-perfect program leader who is always orderly and under control (not that I ever attained that anyways), but a leader who isn’t afraid to let go of control sometimes and recognize that my embarrassing moments might be something that they will remember the most.
I used to get so bummed out when I kept on thinking about my students’ prospects of achieving a university-level education. In fact, that was my first motivating factor to work with inner-city kids: that they would one day have the same academic, and eventually career, opportunities that I had. The sad truth was that there were probably only a handful in my mind who I thought could make it, and perhaps another handful that might choose not to finish high school. I was frustrated by their immature behaviour, their apathy towards their free education, and their inability to concentrate and focus on a task at hand. These grievances would lie heavy on me for a while, then percolate one day on a particular student and finish with me shouting something like, “You should know this by now!”
I know, very helpful, right?
I had to realize that results don’t come overnight (I had to think of my childhood self to quickly remind me of this fact). It takes a lot of patience and gentle affirmation to encourage good work habits amongst students who are already nervous about opening their report cards. But more importantly, I started asking a different set of questions. Instead of asking myself, “Do they have the grades to make it?” I would ask, “Have I taught them to become life-long learners?” or, “In what ways do I see them improving?”
I started to see their problems, and silent successes, in a different light. It became more apparent to me that although I wanted a bright future for all of them, I was only looking at that particular future from one lens. As I dug a little deeper, I discovered that my core desire for them was that they know how special and valued they truly are. Nothing is more important than this. Knowing their intrinsic worth as human beings, and the dignity in others, will carry them through any of life’s challenge, regardless of what career path or job they hold.