Before we explore some details of the Teen Encounters program, allow me to share with you part of my life so that you can understand what drives the program’s structure, and why we do what we do.
In the past, I was employed by the Garden Grove Unified School District as a substitute teacher, teaching high school mathematics. I was credentialed to teach math at any level, although most of the time I found myself teaching basic Algebra. I liked this, as a large proportion of the students were struggling in math, and with other life matters. Because of this, almost all classes had students with serious attitude and behavior problems.
I point this out because one of my student teaching assignments was an “Algebra Readiness” class consisting of students who had consistently failed math throughout their academic life. This generally led to significant classroom management challenges for me. My formal, traditional university training had prepared me to handle this situation with various techniques: the teacher “look”, close student proximity, classroom rules, cooperatively developed behavior plans and the like which I rolled out as instructed. In the end, this netted me a student-crafted petition to be dismissed from teaching this class. It didn’t result in anything happening, of course, but upon reflection, I believe I deserved it. What I needed more than classroom techniques was a different paradigm; a significant shift in MY perspective.
My “fix” came to me when I reflected on where I had been before with my then teenage son, Kyle, and our discordant relationship. Thinking back, as with Kyle, what my students needed was my unconditional support, encouragement, and understanding. In addition, they wanted adult-to-adult relationships, with their own choices and consequences, and mutual respect for one another. We had no rules per se, only a mutually agreed to mode of engagement. I didn’t use office referrals. I didn’t do detentions. I didn’t have to – ever again.
Coming back to Kyle briefly, you should know that during his sophomore year in high school, almost overnight, Kyle’s grades plummeted; he distanced himself from the family, and began using pot. As his parents, my wife and I didn’t know where to even begin to fix the problem. The Day residence was, for a time, full of anger, vitriol, and frustration. Ultimately, this culminated in us sending our son to a military school out of state. He later returned home for the summer, and as you can imagine, little had been accomplished to address the dysfunction in the relationship with Kyle and us. For all practical purposes, Kyle was under threat of being sent back if he didn’t tow the line. Like the officers at Kyle’s school, we were back to more “parents are in charge” on our part: reconciliation was nowhere in sight.
As with my teaching experience, the solution to the problem ultimately involved taking a close look at my values and paradigm, my role as a father, and what I was doing to impede my son’s accessing his basic human needs. As a family, when we stopped blaming our son and looked to ourselves for solutions, it became obvious that our traditional, authoritarian paradigm, and everything that flowed through it, was completely out of sync with what our son really wanted, and teens like him. And only through a bottoming out of our relationship with our son did we have to face the facts, and deal with our beliefs and misconceptions head on.
Before I discuss the specifics of the program with you, I invite you to review the Teen Encounters mission. You will notice two phrases: “long-term” and “principles”. If you scan through, you will notice the absence of any references to the word “technique”. In considering our program, you should know that everything we do with teens and families involves accessing foundational characteristics, or principles of human interaction and human needs. Deeply sensing and detecting the existence and “rightness” of these human “laws” takes time, as does assimilating them into our core beliefs and values, and this is true for teens and parents alike.
Because meaningful, long-lasting connectedness with others involves sincere, deep-rooted trust, we avoid a quick, theme-of-the-day, technique-based approach. Techniques become effective only when they are incorporated and used as an expression of our values, and only when our values are congruent and consistent with the way humans really work. When our values, and therefore our actions are out of step with natural laws, interpersonal frustrations escalate to the breaking point.