When Youth Get to Be Teachers

This afterschool educator empowers her students to step into the role of teacher and share their skills with peers. The outcome? A more positive and inclusive environment.

This year, I frequently ask the youth I work with what skills they can share with others. I believe this is a way of helping youth recognize their power. When necessary, we brainstorm their strengths together—if they’re good at football or reading or crocheting, for instance—and plan opportunities for them to share their skills with other members of our afterschool program.

As the year has progressed, I’ve seen the youth become more open to sharing their skills and to asking others to help them learn new ones. There’s been less bullying about skills-specific things, and when youth get to act as teachers, they become more charitable to the students they’re teaching, both in the moment and after the teaching experience is over.

One youth, who is a skilled soccer player, has been helping others learn the proper ways to pass and dribble the ball. Another patiently teaches other students how to get enough spin on a Frisbee so it doesn’t wobble, and he says encouraging things almost every time someone tries to throw it. That same youth has been more open to asking classmates for help with spelling words, and those he’s helped with Frisbee have been kinder to him when he struggles to spell words they find easy. A youth who enjoys poetry has encouraged four others to take up spoken word. They will perform at the end of the year and have become closer friends over the course of the last semester.

To me, this work is a necessary and critical part of working with youth outside of the school day. I have the opportunity to help them feel empowered and to build the confidence of youth who are less able to recognize their talents. Additionally, I know from talking to them and their teachers that the relationships we work to develop in our afterschool program carry over into the school day.

It’s also critical for helping youth discover their best selves and for reducing shame at what they might perceive as their weaknesses. My co-teacher and I repeatedly talk to youth about how we can’t be great at everything, but the good thing is that we can usually find someone who’s better than we are who can help us improve if there’s a skill we want to work on. We also emphasize that not everyone has to like or be good at everything they try and that we should accept that about others. As a result, we have noticed that youth are encouraging each other without shaming each other, and we have fewer emotional and social flare-ups in our group. It may take time and effort to structure these interactions, but the tremendous value that stems from encouraging students to step into the role of teacher makes it more than worth it.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.