Saturday, July 13, 2013

Youth Development is not Linear

                   After a particularly long and painstaking five-hour car ride back from New York City, I was reminded of the hours spent with youth in our program in a van, bus, or car. More importantly, reflecting on this brought to mind many meaningful, deep conversations about life, work, personal development, and Project Coach that have happened with our youth, our staff, and our veteran coaches during car rides. It is actually quite rare these days that people are in a position to have long talks without the interruptions of phones, text messaging, television, or some other distraction. Since I realized about a month in that my job as program director would involve more hours driving teens around than I had previously imagined, I decided to maximize this time rather than see it as wasted. I see it as a chance to interview teens about their lives, the program, and their dreams. Also, it is an opportunity for them to ask me questions they may normally shy away from. I have truthfully found this to be incredibly successful in improving the program (based on their shared thoughts in the car), building relationships, and helping them feel comfortable asking me for help. Below is the story of Joe and how a few car rides changed my perception of him, my ideas about our program and youth development, and his own understanding of his role in Project Coach.
                              When I first met Joe I was hesitant to believe that he was a veteran coach of PC and about to become one of our first groups of purple shirts (veteran coaches employed as supervising staff). He was soft spoken, had slightly self-conscious body language, and quite frankly was anything but enthusiastic. Although I quickly began to see Joe’s strengths – he took school seriously, he had a great knowledge of and passion for basketball, and he was reliable – I still never saw a charismatic, energetic coach. I spent time asking him about his life, asking him about school, getting him a tutor, doing everything I could to see if I could crack his shell. It never really worked. In spite of his mentor talking with him about “flipping the switch” and being more engaging as a coach, he would only bring that high energy coaching voice about 40% of the time. Then something changed…
                              Although it sounds dramatic and sudden, I believe it was over a course of a few months. We began bringing Joe on trips to NYC to speak about our program, run trainings with other coaches, mentor coaches, and speak to adult staff about why the Project Coach model worked. While I know that the added responsibility, the fact that we trusted him to do this, and the built in self-reflection that occurred during these sessions certainly contributed to his change, I know that the van rides did as well. Joe and I talked about everything from his beliefs in God, to drug use among teens, to why he felt it is important to go back and help the community you are from. We talked about how he started this year thinking he was still just a HS coach – not really seeing his role as hugely different. We talked about how video helped him improve his coaching, how Don (one of our co-founders) influenced his life, how his cousin helped him believe in college as a reality, and how at one point in his life (before Project Coach) he truly believed he would become a drug dealer.  I told Joe multiple times during these conversations how impressed I was by his thought process, his depth, and his maturity. Things I had never known were occurring inside the walls of his skull. These conversations led me to discuss major parts of programming with him, strategic plans for the future, his thoughts on expanding to another geographical region, and his opinion of coaching academies. Overall, I felt I was learning so much about my own mission, his experience, and how the two came together to build something amazing.
                              The pinnacle of all these conversations was this last awfully long, traffic filled ride back from NY. In order to save myself from reading until 1am after driving home, I asked our assistant director to read aloud a chapter from the book Sam and Don wrote about Project Coach and youth development. The chapter, centered on the transfer theory, was a blend of story and academic research. While interesting, it was not without daunting vocabulary and multiple references to other research studies. Joe listened the whole time. More importantly, he interjected with ideas, thoughts, comments, and stories connected to the chapter. He talked about how Project Coach changed his life, how it changed his ideas about school, and how he now understands how crucial teens coaching kids is for his community. He was able to reflect on the readings and the supercognitives as if he had written the chapter.  
                              As I sat there with thoughts of Paul Tough and transfer of soft skills in my head, I couldn’t help but feel that Joe was living, breathing proof that transfer happens. BUT, transfer takes significant time, dosage, mentoring, and explicit conversations with the teens about the process and their experiences. Joe had transferred skills because of conversations like the one we were currently engaged in.  He transferred them because he thought about, talked about, and knew about it.  What is even more mind blowing is that without these long rides back from NYC I may not have been convinced that this transfer had actually happened for Joe. There really is no standardized test to measure transfer. Even things like the developmental assets profile are not picture perfect indicators. He is rather quiet and does a lot of internal processing. His transfer of skills was never really displayed by his presence, his coaching, or his handshake. However, as I sat there stunned by his depth of understanding I thought about how he got the highest grades out of all of our college kids this year, worked the hardest at improving his Basketball knowledge, and improved the most as an employee. I went to bed that night thinking of two things. First, how important a car ride can be. And second, how unfair it was that youth development programs are asked to show what happened in that car through imperfect systems of measurement and evaluation. If any funder was sitting there next to us they would have immediately opened up their checkbook. Why is it that the human element to 'doing good work' has become almost insignificant? I can easily give data that 'looks good' but wouldn't people rather hear Joe's story and 'feel good'? 

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