Opinion: Y.M.C.A (You Must Conquer Adversity)

Guest Writer-Kwame Sarfo-Mensah
During my sophomore year at Temple, I began working at the Columbia North YMCA, which is located about five minutes away from Temple’s main campus. Working at the YMCA gave me my first real exposure to working with kids from urban communities.  My interactions with them allowed me to learn about their culture and their personal experiences growing up in the city. Throughout my time at the YMCA, I worked with so many different people but there were two individuals, in particular, who really had a huge influence on me. The first person was Tevin, a man who is still a good friend of mine to this day.  Born and raised in Philly, Tevin had the ability to connect with all the kids in ways that city transplants, like myself, could not. He understood the kids because his own childhood mirrored the struggles and hardships of many of them. Whenever Tevin was around, it was always a guarantee that the kids were going to have fun. In spite of his engaging and entertaining personality, he still made sure that the kids were held accountable for their behavior. He was never a guy who allowed kids to take advantage of him.  From day one, Tevin and I hit it off. Even when I was not at my best, I could always count on Tevin to say the right thing to keep me motivated.
Now the second person was Terri S., who attended Temple at the same time I did.  Terri was the total opposite of Tevin as far as her approach with the kids. She did not put up with any nonsense from the kids.  She was very strict and rarely smiled in front of the kids. Because she was the ultimate disciplinarian, the kids were intimidated by her.  Whenever Terri stepped into the classroom, the kids immediately stopped whatever negative behaviors they were doing and quickly got their act together. I was amazed by how effortlessly she was able to manage the kids’ behavior. At the time, I didn’t have the tools I have now in terms of managing kids and their behaviors. Whenever I was alone in the classroom with the kids, it was absolute chaos. I was far from intimidating and I repeatedly allowed the kids to take advantage of my kindness. I thought the best way to show respect to the kids was to be kind and polite. If I was showing respect to the kids, how come they weren’t reciprocating that respect?
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how Terri could raise her voice at the kids and still get them to respect her.  The more I observed Terri in action, the more I realized that her consistency and ability to follow through on consequences for the kids’ misbehavior greatly attributed to her effectiveness as a classroom manager. I didn’t necessarily have to act exactly like Terri but I needed to command respect from the kids in the same manner as she did. I had to develop my own behavior management style in order for the kids to take me seriously. I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like but I knew copying Terri’s style would cause the kids to disrespect me even more. If I was going to reach the kids, I needed to be my authentic self.
If I was going to reach the kids, I needed to be my authentic self. Click To Tweet
This process was a challenging one but it was something that I knew needed to happen. There was absolutely no way around it. I needed to face my fears and insecurities head-on. My life at the YMCA would get much worse before it got better. I still had my struggles with controlling the kids and Terri was still coming to my rescue and shutting everything down. As this pattern continued, Terri became increasingly frustrated with the situation and it reached a point where other staff members started to take notice. Even the After-School program coordinator, Kert, at times, had to intervene to address the situation. He had received multiple complaints about my inability to keep the kids under control and manage their behaviors and how my struggles were starting to have a negative impact on the After School program. Word about my struggles would eventually reach the Executive Director and landed me in her doghouse.  She wrote out a probation letter stating that if I didn’t show a significant level of improvement in my performance, I would end up being terminated.  
To make matters worse, she called me in for a meeting and basically chewed me out in front of all my co-workers. There was nothing I could say to defend myself. I took full ownership of my struggles and was fully aware of the fact that I was underachieving.  She was not saying anything different from what others had already commented about my work performance. I knew that my performance would heavily factor into Kert’s decision on whether to bring me back on the after-school program team for the upcoming school year. I was prepared for whatever decision he made.  All I could do was hope for an opportunity to redeem myself and prove my naysayers wrong. Just before the start of the new school year, Kert pulled me into the office for a conversation and he admitted that he was strongly considering not hiring me back but then he had a change of heart after hearing from some of my co-workers.
Adversity would prove to be a recurring theme throughout my tenure at the YMCA. But there was actually a point in time where I almost quit and I just thought to myself, “Man, I don’t know if I can continue to do this job!”  For some reason, I kept coming back because I still enjoyed being around the kids. I still believed in the kids and I still felt like I could be a positive asset for the program. Even though I wasn’t the best manager of student behavior, I still felt like I had the ability to turn things around.  I appreciate Kert so much for giving me that second chance. Considering the fact that I let him down on so many occasions, it really meant a lot that he still believed that I could turn things around. He was the man who brought me into the YMCA and gave me the space to make my mistakes and grow professionally. I really wanted to return the favor and make things right.
From that point on, I started to show some improvements with my classroom management. Periodically, Kert would stop by the program and check up on me to see how I was progressing. He would even share a few pointers on how to address specific behaviors from the kids. Terri earned a promotion and was now the After-School Program Coordinator while Kert transitioned to the role of Program Director.   Even though her job title changed, she still served as a support when I occasionally had my struggles with the kids. Furthermore, she still was not shy about giving me tough love when I needed it. She was quick to point out my mistakes but was equally quick to share my areas of improvement. I could always count on Terri to be honest with me about my performance no matter how painful the truth sounded. Between Kert’s occasional visits and Terri’s consistent leadership, I was able to slowly turn things around and gradually gained back my confidence.
All the lessons I learned from Kert, Tevin, and Terri were finally starting to make sense not only in my mind but in practice. As far as my personality, I was a naturally mild-mannered person who rarely raised my voice. I always remained even-keeled, which is the opposite of what many of the kids experienced in their homes and neighborhoods. In many ways, I was an anomaly in the eyes of many of the kids. The real truth is that most of them didn’t know how to appropriately respond to an individual who didn’t use profanity and show any visible signs of aggression or what they perceived as “toughness”. More than anything, my happy-go-lucky personality attributed to my struggles with behavior management.  
The most important lesson I learned during my time at the YMCA was that kids from urban communities generally respond best to adults who are totally secure with who they are and will not back down to them. If they perceive someone as being soft, they will be more inclined to challenge that individual and do everything possible to get under their skin. That being said, I was not going to pretend that I grew up in the same hood as the kids. Instead, I was going to fight back by being tough-minded and develop a thick skin when things weren’t going my way. They were going to say things with the intention of getting on my nerves but I had to respond appropriately. I discovered the power of my voice and witnessed how adjusting the tone of it could redirect kids to make better choices behaviorally. I also discovered that consistency around enforcing classroom norms and consequences over an extended period of time was the only remedy for maintaining order within the classroom. 
During the first few years, I used to make empty threats towards the kids about dishing out consequences for their misbehavior and, as a result, kids viewed me as a joke because they always caught my bluff. In recognizing that flaw, I became more cognizant about the importance of thinking before speaking out loud. If my intention was for a kid to receive a consequence for their misbehavior, then it was my responsibility to follow through with the consequence 100% of the time. The more I stayed consistent with this habit, the fewer chances kids took to cause trouble in the classroom. As a result of the changes I made, I noticed that kids were starting to show more respect towards me because they saw that I kept coming back every day ready to work.
Ultimately, the best learning happens when your back is against the wall. In my case, I had kids cursing at me, purposely not listening to my directions, and disregarding my presence in the classroom. When these situations are happening time and time again, how do you respond in that situation?  There are no other adults around to come to your rescue so you are forced in a position where you have to figure things out for yourself. As an individual, how do I escape these adverse situations? I had to answer those questions for myself and it took failing multiple times before finally arriving at the correct response. It took being on the brink of being terminated from my job in order for me to put together the pieces of the puzzle. My time at the YMCA exposed me to just about every type of child I would eventually encounter throughout my teaching career — the quiet child, the sneaky child, the overachieving child, the “stank attitude” child, etc.  Even though the students’ faces in my class change every year, the personality profiles of the students remain the same. Once you have dealt with a student who has a specific personality profile, you are now able to manage all students who share that profile.
Once I graduated from Temple, I resigned from my job at the Columbia North YMCA with a newfound confidence and a desire to find a new job that would allow me to apply the many lessons I learned through my time there. After years of personal turmoil and many setbacks, I was ready to embark on a new challenge. It was a special time for me personally and professionally. If I didn’t endure the struggles and experience the setbacks that took place during my time at the YMCA, I would not be the teacher I am today. 

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