Game-changing Leaders

Game-changing Leaders
Learning Brief

Columba Leadership

Don’t neglect the adult in youth-adult partnerships

Category: Game-changing Leaders | Youth leadership pathways | 27 August, 2014 - 15:09


Project context

Columba Leadership’s goal is to develop responsible leaders among South African youth, and to produce socially and environmentally conscious and active citizens who lead through service.  Our programme model involves partnering adults and young learners in one shared leadership experience. The collaboration of young people working in partnership with adults to bring about change is a critical feature of our programme.

To achieve this leadership objective, our organisation has three core activities.

  • First, we facilitate a pre-engagement process with interested schools to ensure that buy-in is established for the leadership program.
  • Second, we run short-term “Residential Academies” for groups of 12 learners, 2 teachers, and the principal of a particular school in order to grapple with 6 core values (Awareness, Focus, Creativity, Integrity, Perseverance, Service), and to elicit leadership capacity. 
  • And third, we provide 2-years of follow up and ad-hoc support for learners and their partner educators after they have attended the Residential Academy. 

This learning brief focuses on a key lesson regarding the need to attend to the adult’s personal struggles and build their psychosocial capacity in order to ensure the programme’s success.

Why help adults build psychosocial capacity?

Our organization’s mission is the development of youth leaders. This begs the question, why should we then focus on helping adults develop their own emotional and psychosocial capacity? We believe the reason is because adults can also suffer from a lack of self-worth, low self-esteem, and depression. These issues become barriers preventing the adult teachers in our partner schools from properly helping young people learn to be leaders.

Identifying the issue

Over the course of our programme implementation, we have encountered the extent to which educators sometimes become disconnected from their own selves, their sense of purpose, and their efficacy. Demotivation as a result of a sense of not feeling appreciated, and frustration at the sense of not being able to address barriers to learning and youth well-being is common amongst the teachers in the schools where we work. During the intense time spent with adult educators at the Residential Academy, we have noticed that they often grapple with the same issues as the youth.

Addressing the issue

To address this issue we have initiated, in the Academy, a very powerful process of reflection and discussion to help the adults “reconnect” with themselves, and with their own sense of purpose. This often exposes their pain and need for emotional healing. We provide support for this reflexive process and encourage the adults to seek extra counselling where needed. But we have also realised that this is an issue that is seldom addressed in youth leadership development programmes and that our organization must take steps to help adults grow emotionally, so that they can in turn help the youth. If adults are to be adequately empowered to support young people and work in effective partnership with them, we believe that they too need space to heal and transform their own lives.

After completing the Residential Academy and training, it is very taxing for the adult teachers to deal with their own vulnerability, to respond with care to the vulnerability of learners, and to contend with the difficult school-system contexts to which they return. When they leave the Academies they return to untransformed, fragile and fractured school systems with cliques, sabotaging behaviour, ill discipline and negativity. Educators can leave the academies very optimistic about the potential of the young people, but they can quickly hit the wall in terms of their own development if they are not adequately supported. This negatively impacts the youth-adult partnership. The return back to school is therefore a vulnerable period for our programme implementation.  

Practical implementation lessons

Strengthen the Academy experience to focus on long-term sustainability of lessons learnt: We are reviewing the Academy experience to ensure that in future the adults can take back to their school contexts, the lessons about youth engagement, building relationships with young people, and creating the conditions to bring out their potential. In future, we aim to encourage the adults taking part in the Academy to think about what they observed, what they felt about the observation, what this could mean for them in their professional roles, how they can support one another going forward, and what role young people might have in bringing change. This will help the adults return from the Academy inspired to assist the Columba group; and equipped to work from a positive, youth-development stance to engage other learners at the school.

Provide post-training debriefing: We will provide individual debriefs for each of the adults after the Academy to acknowledge the emotional journey they are travelling and to identify and address any areas of concern.

Provide on-going physical and emotional support to the educators: After the Academy we need to support the adult educators, physically and emotionally. This will help them remain motivated and retain their sense of purpose for driving meaningful change in the education system, in a sustained manner. The focus of future support and post-Academy training will not only be on skills development for supporting the young people, but will also set in place processes that can help the adults to progress in their personal development.

Identify and mobilise group support for the adults and not just the young people. We have found that the small groups of 3 that were initiated during the Academy can be leveraged as on-going partnerships and support systems. It is essential that they be encouraged to meet regularly and maintain a stance of openness and support for one another. These peer groups can help each other find creative solutions for problems and challenges and they promote a culture of cooperation.

Conclusions and implications for others

  • While educators can play a major part in supporting the NGO projects in schools, there is need to be aware of their own wounds, personal challenges, and contextual experiences.
  • A focus exclusively on youth tends to blind practitioners to the vulnerability of educators as people (not simply as educators). Capacity building among educators is not just about augmenting their technical skills it is also about their personal development.
  • Attempts to identify and mobilise support for young people should be mirrored for adults.

In this learning brief, we have discussed the importance of strengthening the psychosocial and emotional capacity of teachers who are involved in youth-adult leadership partnerships. The outcome serves to ensure longer-lasting, more stable partnerships, better leadership growth, and more effective attainment of project goals.

Columba Leadership

2nd Floor Nando’s Building 553 Louis Botha Avenue Savoy Estate 2090


In Short

In this learning brief, Columba Leadership discuss the importance of strengthening the psychosocial and emotional capacity of teachers who are involved in youth-adult leadership initiatives. The outcome of focusing on the adult’s needs serves to ensure longer-lasting, more stable partnerships, better leadership growth, and more effective attainment of project goals.

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