At the start of the year I took a job at a school for ‘at risk and vulnerable youth’. I’d circled around doing this sort of work for a few years. I’d encountered students who fit that description for many years and, at the end of 2016, felt like I was in a place where I wanted to work with them. So I called a school and within about two days I had a job.
It’s very difficult to picture the students who attend this sort of school. Their experience of poverty and trauma makes them invisible to most other Australians. It’s easy to define them by the most shocking dot point list of their life, but that’s reductionist and crude. Yes, there was every sort of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Yes, there was a whole host of mental illness: from anxiety all the way to suicide all the way to precursors to sociopathy. Many students were daily drug users, many were daily drug dealers and many were daily criminals – shoplifting, breaking and entering, under-age drinking, assault.
I struggled the most with the violence. There were very few fights at the school, I think only four or five for the year, but violence was so pervasive. Students would talk, about everything, with hyper aggressive language. “That’s my fucking sandwich and if some cunt touches it I’ll fucking end them” or “I need a fucking ciggie if I can’t have one some cunt is getting fucked up” or “I shotgunned the front seat and if I can’t have it I’m smashing the bus” - threats as the way of communicating a need or a want, violence as a justifiable reaction to an unfulfilled desire, a sense entitlement leading to screaming and breaking things. It would be an understatement to say that violence was normalised for most students.
When it came to school almost all had missed significant amounts of schooling. Some were completely illiterate at age 13 or 14. Some were whip smart but hated schools, classrooms, teachers and learning. Some hated themselves so much they would self-sabotage just to reinforce their own narrative that they are a failure, a piece of shit, and that they'd never succeed at anything. All needed significant structure in their learning. Types of activities that were so overtly structured a student could see the start, middle and end right there on the worksheet, or right there on the board.
There were some exceptions in the highly anxious kids who just need in the very core of their being for things to go right, for everyone to shut up, sit down, take the notes down and learn. These students were ‘typical’- not violent, not angry, not mean – but absolutely were also struggling daily.
What’s maybe not talked about enough is the happiness, success, joy and humour that was experienced daily. Students were often very happy, calm, motivated, engaged, successful. Students learned to read (though still don’t like it much), students learned to write, students learned to make films, cook food, explain how war destroys the lives of civilians, explain how inflation increases poverty and, most importantly, hopefully learned some worldliness, empathy and gentleness. I saw it, I believe it. It’s so easy to have the condescension of pity for the poor and the struggling, it’s hugely important that we collectively view people as more than their problems.
I loved the staff I worked with. They were exceptionally dedicated, exceptionally hardworking and completely under-paid. I don’t usually bang that drum: it’s a terrible cliché that teachers are underpaid, and I actually want to talk about the youth workers. These are people who can calm someone on a meth high in minutes, these are people who can work with someone who has a suicide plan so that they are safe, these are people who can redirect someone brimming with rage, with a weapon, these are people who can get screamed at, threatened, abused and eventually have that kid eating out of their hands. This is hard work. This is harder work than I can do. I'd love to watch some CEO on 7 figures try to apply private market thinking to these interactions. This is worth more than the$45-$50k a year. Many of these co-workers struggle to make ends meet: to pay their rent, raise their kids and live decently. It’s pathetic, really, that a country like Australia can’t pay professionals – really skilled, experienced and excellent professionals – a decent wage to work with students that are shoved around and excluded because they are so trying, or even impossible.
I’ve learned a lot in one year. I’ve learned about how incomplete the idea of education as a tool for social improvement is. It’s one part of a much more complex story. There needs to be successful schools, for sure, but we also need more generous government housing, more skilled and communicative youth justice workers, more successful re-habilitation, more direct and meaningful anti-poverty legislation.Students told me, weekly, things like “Matt we don’t like stealing, but how else will we eat?” or “I hate dealing drugs, but who will give me a job? I can’t even fucking read.”. The students know their options, they make the best choices that they see. It’s such a hard sell: come to school, a place you’ve failed, work hard for 3-4 years overcoming failure, go onto to college, keep learning, get an apprenticeship, keep working, keep struggling, then when your job is automated/offshored in 10 or 15 years struggle more. How can that compete with the immediate need of food, pride, social status of some kind? Crime’s not the answer, but one school and a handful of under-resourced agencies staffed by under-paid and over-stressed workers is not the answer either. But for the students those are the choices. I don’t know that I’d make a better choice in their place.
One particular memory of this sticks in my head. An
afternoon and I was surfing youtube with two boys, and they wanted to
watch news reports of people who were robbing, stealing and on drugs.
And I said 'I don't want to watch that' and one of the boys said 'Why
not? It's our life.' So I replied 'I feel like it's taking people who
are struggling and turning them into entertainment, and that's not OK
with me' and the boy said 'it's OK Matt, we know you get us, we know
you're not like that'. It's heart warming initially, but then you have
to realise that they are recognising how little they are understood and
how often they are viewed and judged.
But this work isn’t for me in the long term. I’m not strong enough. I struggle with sleep due to high stress. I’ve had nightmares about students attacking me, or my co-workers. I’m not consistently calm enough to be the teacher I need to be for these students. Professionally it’s not for me in the long term, though I’m really proud of my work in the short term. I’ve been to counseling, I’ve had meetings, and I’ve confided in friends. At the end of the day you’ve got to be honest enough to know where you stand.