“I have a confession to make… amongst my team I am famous for crying. Not because I am sad but because the impact is overwhelmingly amazing”
“When I signed up to City Year I never ever thought I’d be the one telling my story. I cried a river at the ceremony when we were given our red jackets simply because the opportunity to serve has been one of my biggest achievements to date.
“I volunteer at a school in the heart of Walsall; at an alternative provision as part of Team Moccasins. ’Moccasins’ is shorthand at City Year for simply taking a walk in another person’s shoes. It comes from the Native American prayer, ‘Great Spirit, grant that I will not criticise my brother or sister until I have walked a mile in his or her moccasins.’ We are encouraged to ‘moccasins’ everything by constantly putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.
“Moccasin experiences are critical to learning and gaining perspective, which is why we hold them to be so important in our City Year culture. They help you discover the essence of another person, they clarify unfamiliar situations, and they lead to stronger bonds and communities. With this moccasin spirit in mind, what would you have done if you were in my shoes? Here’s what happened…
“Growing up I was a young carer from the age of 7, living in a very chaotic household in the heart of one of Birmingham’s most deprived areas. My education was a major part of my childhood and it shaped me to be the woman I am now. For as long as I can remember my life was that of a disadvantaged child but most importantly, I was reluctant to let anybody know I was experiencing difficulties.
“Looking back, I remember a few teachers in particular that always made me feel supported and gave me a real sense of ‘belonging’. I was never excluded from school but due to housing challenges I had to leave my school during my primary years and moved from school to school, never really settling until the age of 11 when I started secondary school. By this time the effects of all these disruptions were huge and I was experiencing a lot of emotional and behavioural problems. I felt so dreadfully misunderstood and lived for many years in survival mode.
“Becoming a mother at 14 made me start to see the true value of education. I was determined to not become a statistic and worked very hard to get the best educational outcome possible. Alongside being the sole carer to my son, I managed to achieve 7 GCSE’s grades (A*-C) and went on to achieve 3 A-Levels before going on to study Criminology and Law at the University of Wolverhampton.
“My journey to City Year hasn’t been an easy one: homelessness, mental health issues, an abusive relationship and another beautiful baby boy all came before. I am all too aware of how life can feel when you feel like the world is against you; the stigma that society can attach to young people who display challenging behaviours and how damaging self-fulfilling prophecies can be to an individual, never mind an individual from a disadvantaged background.
“Making a change to inequality is something I’ve always been passionate about. After my experience of working with another charity on a campaign with West Midlands Police, I knew my journey wasn’t over so I applied for City Year and it has been my honour to be given the opportunity to give a year to serve at the Ladder School and potentially change the life of at least one child who has had similar experiences to me or worse. In life we are all faced with adversity. Putting my life aside, I rise every day, show gratitude for all I have and put myself in the shoes of every young person that I work with to ensure they are nurtured and given the greatest amount of support to ensure they have amazing outcomes.
“Now in the beginning, I mistakenly thought that it would be easy…
“My first experience with the pupils was nerve-racking. I walked up the stairs, through the double doors and was met by piercing eyes staring at me from the other side of the corridor. As I approached with a friendly smile on my face, my heart was racing; it was our first official day as ‘the new City Year’ and I didn’t know what to expect. The majority of the students had worked with City Year last year and with all the disruptions to their learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic I knew it was going to be a rocky road. Could I really make a difference to their learning?
“My initial interaction with the students was with a group of Year 11s in the corridor but there was one student in particular who stood out to me. Watching from afar, I could tell this student was a ball of energy, bouncing from wall to wall, leading the group. She approached me and asked who I was and was very vocal as she recalled last year’s city year volunteers and questioned why I’d want to volunteer to work in a school with kids!? The first day was tiring and this comment stuck with me. Why? Why? Why?
“As the week went on, Mia’s* exuberant energy whizzed around the school and I was intrigued to find out more about her. I’d seen my younger self in her so much and challenged myself to crack her mould to diffuse some of her chaos and guide her to channel some of her energy into her education and future.
“Like me, Mia didn’t have a plan on what she wanted to do post education and had no real role models. She attended school everyday as it was a safe space for her but had no real motivation or plans for life after school. She soon became one of my focus list pupils as we struck up a really good relationship and it was evident I could manage and challenge her behaviour when she was having a moment.
“Mia is very impulsive and as hard as she tries, she finds it very difficult to just pause for a second and think before she acts, which often led her down the wrong path, often getting in trouble with the police and being known in the community for all the wrong reasons. She didn’t care about the consequences. Her behaviour had been erratic for a few days and I decided to speak to her about it one to one. She explained to me a lot was going on at home and all she wanted to do was break the cycle and make a better life for herself and her siblings. I felt like I had finally cracked her but it was time to do the hard work.
“She checked in with me everyday and I tried to be consistent with her as much as I could. She’d come to school on time, come to my classroom, give me a fist pump, I’d tie her shoelaces and walk her to her first lesson. I took the time to nurture her, tell her I was proud of her and told her she’s doing the best job she can. Before I knew it, Mia was proud of herself too. She’d show off her achievements, present me with her work and actually stay in class for more than 20 minutes at a time. Hearing her brag about all the positive things she had achieved was music to my ears.
“Like us all, there were a few bumps in the road but when she was struggling she made sure she found me in school and we would find a quiet space and colour together, sometimes in silence or she would download all her worries and frustrations before she returned back to class, restarting her day. One day, just before Christmas half term, she was having a bad day and we were colouring a picture of the Grinch. She said to me, ‘You still didn’t answer my question. Why do you do this?’ My response was, ‘I do this just so we can sit here right now and colour.’ She was puzzled so I asked her, ‘Do you remember the Mia I first met? The Mia who wouldn’t stay in class for 5 minutes, the mini fireworks that would explode around the school all day everyday, running into walls and fly kicking doors?’ Her cheeks went red. I said, ‘I do this because look at you now, sat here colouring, expressing yourself in such a positive calm way. You’ve changed so much in such a short amount of time and I am so proud of you.’
“Now she was totally grossed out by this because affection was something she wasn’t used to. She told me I was weird and was evidently embarrassed but that was enough for me. To see her progress in such a short period of time was a checkpoint in my City Year journey because it isn’t all about the academic achievements but sometimes the social-emotional development that the children can make with just a little bit of care and guidance. Mia now has a part-time job, has applied to study Art and Design at 6th Form and has just completed the majority of her GCSE exams and tried her absolute best to achieve her full potential. However, my key takeaway is Mia now believes in herself, has a positive attitude and doesn’t give up when things get tough – skills she needs for the future when City Year isn’t around and that is just 2% of what City Year is about.
“City Year has given me the opportunity to bridge the gap between education inequality by supporting the most vulnerable young individuals. The individuals who ‘just get by’, often being labelled, the individuals who have the opportunity to turn it all around but just need some support. It’s all about changing lives, making a difference and equipping young people with the skills they need for their future. Being a part of City Year has been incredibly fulfilling and I am proud and honoured to go into school everyday and see the young people smiling.
“It’s the little interactions, just like tying Mia’s shoelaces that have the most impact and it’s a privilege to be able to give a year. I believe schools are the hub of the community and City Year is the heart of the schools.”
*Pupil’s name has been changed
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