5 things that will strangle your passion in youth work

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Youth work is the outworking of a passion or “why”. But if you don’t deal with the five dangers lurking in the workplace, you might lose it.

Youth work is the outworking of a passion or “why”. But if you don’t deal with the five dangers lurking in the workplace, you might lose it.

Giving professional supervision to youth workers gives me a big picture of the work they do. Not only what things they do, but what drives it. And one of the things that can make or break their success, is having a passion for working with young people. It also impacts on their ability to stay in the job long-term.

“When you are labouring for others let it be with the same zeal as if it were for yourself.”

CONFUCIUS

We all have a different passion that motivates our work.

It might be to equip young people to grasp hold of a better life, or it might be to create change in the world. Perhaps yours is different again. Whatever your passion, there are things in the nature of youth work that can strangle it. Like weeds in a vege patch.

This is the second article in my series on hanging on to your why as a youth worker. In the first article, I wrote about why it’s important to know your “why”, or your passion. Next week’s offering will be all about how to find it again when you’ve lost it. So let’s get stuck into the things that can cause the most damage to that passion.

1. When there’s a disconnect between values

People in the helping professions work with two overlapping fields of thought. Their personal one, shaped by their own experiences, upbringing and interests, and their workplace one. These approaches can have different ideas about ethics, practice theory and beliefs about the world. But often the simplest difference is in values.

Where your workplace has contrasting values to your own, it can be difficult to cling onto your passion. So it’s important to be clear about what your own values are, and what the ones at work look like too.

There are lots of different values. If you’re not sure what yours are Shannah Kennedy gives a helpful list in her book The Life Plan: Simple Strategies for a Meaningful Life, including:

  • Integrity
  • Wisdom
  • Loyalty
  • Generosity
  • Creativity
  • Freedom
  • Order
  • Responsibility
  • Cooperation
  • Self-respect

Others that might resonate with your passion are:

  • Peace
  • Joy or happiness
  • Faith
  • Optimism or hope
  • Compassion
  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Kindness
  • Forgiveness
  • Patience
  • Trust
  • Persistence

You can find others that might fit with our outlook on life on values.com and Steve Pavlina’s list of 418 values.

The values in a workplace can be both spoken and unspoken. You might find that there are stated values, like teamwork, excellence, and fairness. But there may also be values that underpin how people work together, like competition and hierarchy that diminish these in real life.

If there’s a big difference between your values and those of your workplace, you either have to find a way to live happily with that difference or look for a change. You can change where you work, or work to change the culture within the organisation to reflect those qualities you value.

“Passion is energy. Feel the energy that comes from focusing on what excites you.” – Oprah Winfrey

2. Choosing the wrong measure of success

Youth work is a long-term project delivered in short-term time frames. Given the age of young people, you might not see results before they move out of the service you work for. If you get caught up on seeing your success as how young people are changing today, then it can look like you’re not being effective.

Good metrics for your work are looking for small changes, connections between young people and their community and knowledge, not actions.

Modern youth work can be all about measuring outcomes, so if the work you’re doing is about ticking boxes that are of little value to you, look at how you can measure your effectiveness against your own passion and values. What things do you do at work that help young people set themselves up for life, even if they’re not acting on it today?

One of my jobs was about supporting young people in foster care. The measures of success were about placement stability, family visits, and budget restraint. But the driving measure of success for me was how much their placement felt like a home for them.

My passion was creating environments where kids could thrive. It still is. So within the requirements of my job, I worked to make each foster placement the best it could be, with what resources we had available. That passion made my work feel valuable and rewarding.

3. Isolating yourself

Good practice as a youth worker is about staying connected with people and ideas that relate to your work.

Networking is something you have to put time into. Whether as part of your job or outside of it. Connecting with people who do the same sort of work and work with the same sort of kids. You might do that through going to conferences, community meetings or visiting different organisations in your community.

Don’t let your work pull you away from linking up with people who share your passion and values.

The other way you can get isolated is to not keep up with your knowledge and skills. New research turns up ideas that can change how we work with young people all the time. It’s good to be open to those ideas and have people you can toss them around with too.

4. Doing the same things over and over again

Most jobs these days have high expectations when it comes to productivity. You’re expected to do more than ever before with less time and fewer resources. That’s the nature of the competitive market and a global economy has amplified it.

The easy response is to simplify things by working in patterns. Doing the same program over and over again. Or working through the same activities with kids regardless of what issue they’re facing.

Keeping your passion alive is about making sure that you don’t lose sight of the individuality of each child, each program and each season.

It’s good to stop now and then and ask yourself what you’re doing and why. Pull out your job description and see how your day-to-day work matches up to it. If there’s a discord between the two, then start asking some questions of those you report to.

Keep things fresh by looking for changes in your community. There is so much data around these days that you can gather plenty of information to guide your practice. The big issues you could be making part of your work at the moment are:

5. Making your passion about yourself

The job of making life better for other people requires a sense of sacrifice and selflessness. Yet most people need some sort of personal reward to stay motivated long-term.

You’re not going to get rich as a youth worker or gather a ton of fans. The desire for fulfillment can creep into your why if you’re not careful. Turning your passion towards your own needs rather than others. They might be subtle changes, but they’re still traps.

Your passion to equip young people for a better life can shift towards helping young people reach their potential. Helping makes your role more important, less dispensable. And that means you may not let the young person hang onto the reins of their own life, particularly if you’re defining what their potential is.

Your desire to create communities where young people thrive can morph into fixing the problems that hold young people back. At the end of the day, young people need to be dealing with their own problems and finding pathways forward that work for their life. If you get caught up on fixing things, you become a sort of “Bob the Builder” youth worker rushing from one job to another. Be mindful of your own needs and how they get served by your work. It’s not wrong to have a sense of

Be mindful of your own needs and how they get served by your work. It’s not wrong to have a sense of fulfillment about what you do, but be honest about where that comes from. And if you notice that your passion is becoming more about how you feel than the young people, then it’s time to have another look at your “why”.

The passion that makes you turn up to work as a youth worker is your “why”. It’s that motivation that keeps you going through the tough times. Even the best youth workers can lose their passion if they don’t do a good job of keeping it in sight and dealing with distractions that draw them away from it.

Do you need help working out your why? Or perhaps finding it again? Holding on to your purpose is a big part of what I do in professional supervision sessions, so send me a message and let’s see how we can get you back on the right path again.

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