Your Questions Answered: Working with Youth, Staff Challenges, Innovation

Q: I lead a group of young people between the ages of two to 26. Attendance is very poor for our weekly meetings and are a bit hard to organize. How can I make these gatherings interesting?

A: It can be very difficult to hold the attention of young people, especially when there is such a large age span. Here are a few ideas that might help increase attendance and organization:

  1. Think like one of the young people. As adults we often have very different ideas about the world and goals than children do. When we approach working with children, it can be helpful to try to see the world through their eyes – which may seem naïve or distorted to us. Imagine what it is like for them to participate in the group. What other activities might they be doing instead? Why do you think they are making this choice?
  2. Ask participants what they want. In addition to thinking like a young person, you can get right inside their minds by asking them what they want. What do they like most about the meetings? What don’t they like? What do they want to get out of participating? Why do they choose to come or not to come? Accept their honest feedback and adjust the schedule and activities accordingly.
  3. Create an incentive to participate. It may seem a little manipulative or unethical to offer people something for participating. The reward of your meeting should be enough! But in reality, incentives can help people try something that they might otherwise choose not to do. An incentive can be something very simple, like the opportunity to do something new, a snack, or a special guest speaker that piques their interest. Make a list of rewards that your young people might like and choose something that is feasible given your resources.
  4. Divide the group by age. Because the attention span, interests, and goals of people in your age range are very different, it may be beneficial to break the group up according to age. If this is difficult to manage, you may need to recruit more volunteers to help you implement activities.
  5. Develop mentors. You have a great opportunity here for the older participants to mentor those who are younger. This will give them a sense of responsibility and connection that my improve participation. In addition, the younger people will benefit from these relationships and may attend more often because they are excited to see their mentor.
  6. Identify cheerleaders. Young people are highly influenced by their peers. If you have active participants in your group, they can be your cheerleaders and help you recruit participants. Provide them with the language and support needed to tell other young people about the group.
  7. Demonstrate impact. Clearly identify the goals of each meeting and the group overall. When goals are achieved, or milestones toward those goals, verbally let the group know. Remind them of your group’s purpose and let them know that you are making progress. It may not be obvious to them without you calling it to their attention.

Q: I own a school and have a staff of 17 people. It is hard to recruit staff because of our school’s location. The staff I have do not respect my authority. They come late, dress improperly, are insubordinate, and express many other negative attitudes. How can I restructure and build on my staff’s strength?

A: I understand your predicament. You don’t want to lose staff, because they are hard to replace. Yet, the staff you have aren’t being good role models to your students. Here are a few ideas that might help:

  1. Reward good behavior. Hopefully, some of your staff are exhibiting good behaviors. Recognize and reward them for being good role models not just to your students but to other employees. Consider matching these employees with others who are struggling to serve as mentors and provide them with a reward for their extra effort.
  2. Create a comprehensive policy book. Make sure all of your expectations are in writing. When new staff are hired, go over each item with them. Unfortunately, you can’t expect that everyone will have common sense. Ask employees to sign a document stating that they have read and understand the policies.
  3. Create consequences for breaking the rules. Put a system in place to let people know when they have broken a policy. Remind them why this particular policy is important to the school and your students. Clearly identify the consequences for breaking the rule including both the impact on the employee and the influence it will on students. Create a progressive system of consequences leading up to termination of employment.
  4. Suggest ideas for improvement. Provide your staff with alternative options for behavior. If they are doing something that is against the school policy, don’t just point out that what they are doing is breaking the rules – provide them with specific ideas of things that they could do instead. If this behavior is something that the employees always do at work and otherwise, they may not really think about other options.
  5. Document challenges and progress. Keep notes for yourself with dates to help you remember what happened when. When you have a conversation with an employee about their behavior, follow that conversation up with something in writing that identifies the policy that was broken and what your expectation is for them going forward.
  6. Build on your school’s strengths. Think of your school in terms of its unique strengths. What makes it special? If you do need to recruit new staff, do so from a position of strength rather than focusing on the inconvenient location. Position your school as a great place to work and you will attract great talent.
  7. Carefully screen new employees. If you do hire new staff, make sure you are prepared to ask them questions that will help you determine whether or not they are a good fit for your school – and whether they will bring you the same challenges you have experienced in the past. Carefully observe their behavior and how they respond to your questions.
  8. Be a role model. As the owner, you are the ultimate role model and are always being watched by your students and staff. Make sure you always exhibit the behaviors that you expect to see in others.

Q: I am a teacher and the head of our English department. I work with many different personalities. How can I be more innovative to improve the department’s achievement?

A: Yes, it can be a challenge to work with many different personalities! Here are a few ideas that may promote your department’s success:

  1. Approach relationships with curiosity. Demonstrate a genuine interest in getting to know your coworkers and other employees in your school. This will open up opportunities to learn about how each person is motivated and what they can offer to improve the department.
  2. Identify each other’s strengths and interests. It is helpful to be curious and to pay attention to information that other people voluntarily share. But sometimes we need to intentionally ask questions to gather specific information. Take the time to ask each person in your department what their special gifts are and what interests them most. Don’t forget to share this information about you with others, too! It may be especially powerful to do this in a group setting where everyone in the department can learn more about each other to coordinate effort and promote bonding.
  3. Create opportunities for everyone to contribute. Now that you know how people are motivated and what their strengths and interests are, create opportunities for them to use their talent to benefit the department. When new projects come up, pull people in who will be interested and who will likely make a positive contribution.
  4. Let people take risks. Innovation involves risk and learning. Give your staff a little room to try new things and then evaluate, together, whether or not it worked. If it worked well, then this practice can be shared throughout your department. If it didn’t work so well, then you can either change it up a bit or try something new. Let your staff know that you trust them to try new things.
  5. Celebrate your department in the school. Honor the contributions of your staff by letting school administrators and other department heads know about their commitment, innovative ideas, and successes.
  6. Expose your employees to new ideas. As department head, you have the opportunity to shape your employee’s ideas about education and to expand their horizons. When you find examples of practices that are working well in other environments, share them with your staff. You can do this verbally, in writing, or at meetings. Set up a system to regularly share new ideas with your staff.
  7. Define success. What is your department trying to achieve? How does it define success? Have this conversation with staff to create a working definition of success. This will guide the department’s efforts and can serve as a reminder of what the group thinks is most important when decisions are made.