CYC-Online 66 JULY 2004
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case book

Power and empowerment

A piece of older writing by Brian Gannon on the place of good leadership in the smaller program.

“Birdie” Steyn and Margaret Wallace were child care workers in two children's homes situated a mile apart. Both were in their thirties. Birdie Steyn was married to a transport manager (who lived in at the children's home with her) and Margaret was single. The two had met at Association meetings and had also worked together in a task group at a national conference – and had become firm friends. The awkward working hours allowed them little time to meet, but they made a fixed lunch date each Thursday, sometimes followed by a movie. It was good to be able to share, in a completely frank but private way, their passion for child care work – at which both were more than competent. Although they were on the whole very positive about their jobs, no doubt a few ears burned as they recounted their week over lunch.

"I’m beginning to get the hang of teenagers,” confided Birdie over a salad. “For the first time I feel I am old enough – and skilled enough – to relate sensibly to adolescents. I think I’ve always been too close age-wise to be “mom” to them, and I too easily used to get into power struggles with them. But as I keep on with this work, I feel more comfortable – and I am picking up a few tricks, too.”

Margaret didn’t reply. She forked a wedge of her avocado thoughtfully, and listened as Birdie went on: “What has been most helpful for me, is learning how to confront kids when its necessary, without getting embarrassed or afraid. I was always scared – that they would reject me, or stand up to me, or even laugh at me and ignore me when I had to challenge them about something. But having worked with George Armstrong (Birdie’s principal) has been tremendous. He has taken the trouble to work with me on skills with teenagers, and I’m learning so much from watching him do the things I’m not too sure of. He’s wonderful to watch with the kids.”

Margaret Wallace stopped eating and looked at Birdie. “You’re touching me on a real sore point here, you know?” she said. “I am very much aware that I run out of skills when I get into confrontations with adolescents. They just don’t seem to listen. Often, all I can do is take them to the Principal – and that makes me feel pretty useless.”

“Oh, yes, I know how that feels,” answered Birdie. “I often have to take the kids to George, too. But what does your Principal do with the children?”

"I don’t know what he does.” replied Margaret. “He just says 'Thank you Miss Wallace; I will deal with this'". I sometimes hear him shouting at one of the kids, and I must say that there usually seems to be some improvement when a child comes back to the house, but I don’t know what the Principal actually does. In a way, I’m just glad he’s there when I need him, but I certainly don’t know what he does. What does your Mr Armstrong do?”

“Well, he does a few things. First he talks with me about what might be wrong: about what the child is doing, about what I am expecting from the child, how I’m communicating this, how the child replies, and so on. Sometimes even that is enough, because I see that maybe I am expecting the impossible from a child, and George then reminds me that nobody’s perfect and the kid's behaviour is not really a problem.” Margaret listened with interest.

“Other times,” continued Birdie, “he invites me in to listen while he deals with the child – that’s when I see how he works with them. I learn a lot then, because I see ways in which I might try to handle the situation next time it arises for me. At other times, after we talk about what should be done, he let’s me handle the problem, with him watching me. Usually I manage to get it right (or nearly right) and afterwards George and I talk about what I did right and what I can improve. It helps.”

"You know, I really miss that sort of learning opportunity”, sighed Margaret. “I have this helpless feeling that my Principal is simply more powerful than I am, that he can use his greater authority with difficult kids to get them to comply – but I don’t learn anything from that – and I really feel sidelined and powerless.”

* * *

1. Where is the meeting point between skill and power in child care work? We all know that we can push smaller kids around, make them do what we want, simply because we are bigger. And we also know that is a bit sick, and a recourse we may be tempted to only when we’re at our very worst. And the trouble is, that children who have been treated like that also come to see authority only in terms of power, and this makes them pretty hard to work with when they get as big as us.

And of course in the child care “system” we find other kinds of power beyond simple physical power. There is the power to punish, to restrain or to coerce, even to expel – and transfer to another institution. And those who have this kind of power can also use it to get compliance from the kids – all of which, we know, has little to do with working with adolescents, whom we should at that age be helping to develop “controls from within” for their own autonomous living.

2. But of course the real point of this “casebook” episode is not about power but empowerment. Here we have a picture of child care worker Birdie Steyn being empowered by her Principal, George Armstrong, as he helps her to understand the underlying dynamics of work with adolescents, a man who recognises her anxieties (and relieves her of the unnecessary ones); also a teacher who models effective ways of working with difficult kids – and then gives her a shot at managing problems herself while he stands by in support. In Birdie’s own words, she’s “getting the hang of teenagers”.

Margaret Wallace, on the other hand, is being disempowered. The only “power” around seems to be the bureaucratic power which her Principal keeps very much to himself. There is no attempt to learn together better ways of dealing with troubled kids. Margaret probably feels almost unnecessary in the exchanges between youth and principal, and she feels, as she says, “sidelined and powerless”.

3. There is a strong message here: those in senior positions in children's institutions, if they are going to promote a healthy culture of learning and growth in their communities, must remain themselves demonstrably good practitioners in Child and Youth Care work, learning and teaching alongside their staff colleagues, and also “most powerfully “alongside the youngsters in their care.

This feature: Gannon, B. (1992). A child care worker’s casebook: Power and empowerment. The Child Care Worker, 10, 3, March 1992. p.9

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