There a lot of compelling reasons to work in after school programs. Do you like to sleep in? The late start of the busy part of the day is your cup of tea. Like playing non-traditional games that can’t be played in schools? Come play dodgeball in after school. However, the number one reason to work in after school programming is connecting, mentoring, coaching and just plain being there for kids for years of their lives.
Those that work in after school and are passionate about its value know that the character development opportunities afforded to students who attend the programs is leaps and bounds better than other areas of education. A teacher works with a group of students for 9 months and then is lucky if they get a visit or two the next year. In after school programs that do their jobs well, students can stay involved in the program for most of their childhood. Think of the impact your positive relationship has knowing that you are a part of their lives for the majority of their young lives.
Take the case of Gabe. I’ve known Gabe since he joined my program in 2008. Back then he was a quiet, skinny, blonde kid with too much hair on his too-big-for-his-body head. He was the kid who in group meetings when asked if there were any questions, raised his hand, forgot his initial question and stammered through the next thought that came in his head, just so he could get a chance to speak up. As Gabe grew up in the program, he tried a little bit of everything we offered. I watched him become an accomplished athlete, a decent cook and despite his earlier flailing, a great debater in classes like Role Playing Games and Zombie Survival.
As Gabe reached thirteen years old, I began to see two things happen. First, he asked for more responsibility. At one point, he knew so much about my program I let him run the meetings from time to time. He even taught his own version of my class, Monster Survival. Second, Gabe began to spend more and more time in my office, seeking advice. Chit chatting about the latest Avengers movie turned to navigating the chaos of 7th grade classes and small talk about the football season turned to asking about girls and the mysteries of the dating world.
Throughout Gabe’s final year, his 8th grade, I found myself in a position of counseling and advising him as he tried his best to impress a girl that quite simply was not interested in him. At several points throughout the year, the other staff would get involved in the conversations. So much of what Gabe needed wasn’t simple systematic advice on dating (as if I’d be the one to give out sage advice on that subject anyway). He needed an ear. Gabe was born with just one ear on his head, and he asked me to donate my left ear to him. Just kidding. Gabe needed someone to listen to him construct his own choices. Gabe needed to work out solutions to his problems with an adult that he knew cared for him.
At the end of Gabe’s time with us this summer, not much was resolved in his dating world. The girl he liked never returned his affections. In fact, Gabe was so hurt over it that he refused to talk to her all summer, causing plenty of drama with the 12-14 year olds. Since September, Gabe has graduated our program and I haven’t seen much of him.
Until this week. He dropped by with his girlfriend. With an enormous smile on his face, he walked me through how they met, how he got up the courage to ask for her number, and how she had given it to him: “It was literally the best day of my life! And it was so easy. I don’t know why everyone makes a big deal about it!” She smiled at me shyly as he told the story of how he sat with her number for 3 days before texting her and taking her out. That Gabe needed me to know about this is the essence of why we do this job. Beyond the pride I carry inherently for my own kids, next is the pride of seeing these students grow up into confident, smart, caring young adults. There really is no comparison in the educational field. Do not take it for granted, your position in an after school program. Not every student stays with us for 7 years, some we only have the chance to impact for a few months. Not every student will drop by to brag of their successes, but when they do, make sure you take personal note of it. Write it down. File it in a “best moments” folder and more than anything, keep up the great work.