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When I Grow Up, I Want to Be Just Like…Who?
By Nancy Wade Zappulla , BS, MS
Published: 05/17/2010

Tutor “Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it's the only thing,” said Albert Schweitzer, and so say I. The majority of young people who populate our juvenile detention facilities are the products of a variety of influences. We who work with incarcerated juveniles can’t control our students’ pasts, but we are responsible for life while they’re in our care. And yes, while safety and security preclude certain niceties of interaction with them, we hold in our hands the gift of being positive influences during a critical juncture in their lives.

The truest truth is that we are all---line staff, teachers, administrators, medical folks---going to have some measure of influence on these juveniles. We are part of their environment as we work, and they are eternally listening to us and watching us. What sort of model we are to them…well, that’s pretty much up to us. Here are just a few of the ways we influence the juveniles with whom we work:
  1. What sorts of words do we use when we talk to them? Are our conversations full of scathing comments, sarcastic “jokes”, or doublespeak? Saying “I don’t have time to answer stupid questions,” or “What makes you actually think I care?” reinforces the use of language as a weapon. Too often such language is excused as exercising control when it really is, is a kind of bullying or macho exhibitionism. Kids whose ears bear the bruises of verbal assaults shouldn’t have to endure them from us whose directives are protection and education.
  2. Coupled with the words we choose is our tone of voice. Wrapping our conversations in scorn, disrespect, and belligerence screams our disdain for our kids and transmits that same negative opinion they’ve heard before. We need to check ourselves before we blurt out the first thing that springs to mind. Perhaps the excuse is, “I was just kidding,” but interestingly, the root meaning of sarcasm is flesh tearing. Do we really want to injure young people that way?
  3. Our facial expressions and body language often send messages even more potent than our words. Saying all of the correct words with a civil tone is obliterated by a scowling face or belligerent stance. We can’t forget that the world has not been a pleasant, predictable place for our young people, and they see antagonism where it might not be intended. It is up to us, the adults, to match our words with our faces, and no, we don’t always feel like it. Nonetheless, we can’t shrug it off, rationalizing, “They’ll get over it.” Maybe yes, maybe no.
  4. No big news here, but stress is a constant in the world of corrections. We never know from moment to moment what could happen next. Schedules aren’t merely flexible, they’re liquid. People’s lives change at the crack of a gavel. We who work in juvenile detention must demonstrate how people handle stress with control and even maturity. How do we expect them to handle stress when we burst into flames when things don’t go as planned? How we work through changes and problems provides powerful opportunities to talk about and demonstrate our methods of handling stress. Remember, even sullen eyes still see.
  5. How do we relate to our colleagues? Do we roll our eyes and mutter when we see them coming and then laugh it up with them when they arrive? Do we open up our can of smarty-pants in front of the students, demonstrating yet again the hypocrisy of “Don’t do what I do, do what I say!”? We must model ways to accept correction and even criticism with dignity. These young people have watched adults do and say a lot of things, but rarely have they witnessed good manners in stressful situations. Let your kids see how a lady or a gentleman behaves.
  6. Perhaps the most powerful example we can offer is one of consistency, of being a person whose words and actions match. Attached to this unswerving commitment to being constant day in and day out must be the willingness to be…dare I say it?...wrong. Sometimes we make mistakes, and we need to apologize. If I offend a student in front of the class, I need to apologize in front of the class. As a veteran of many mistakes and apologies, let me assure you that your authority can remain intact after such a bold move. The kids don’t forget, you know, and when you say in front of the group, “Hey, yesterday when I called Devin a slob, I was wrong. I apologize, Devin.” Then life goes on, and you’re done…until the next time. When you are predictable with your actions and words, you have modeled something quite novel to your kids…what it means to be a person of integrity.

Surely few of us wake up, climb out of bed, and get ready to go to work scheming to be a negative influence on the kids. But simply not planning to be a bad role model isn’t enough; we must intend to be a good model with constructive words and actions. What we must be is a role model worthy of imitating, an adult who demonstrates life lessons these young people may never have seen before.

Besides, you are an influence, whether you want to be or not. We adults have a certain amount of power here in a juvenile detention facility, be it from size or control or a set of keys. “Hey, I’m just here to do my shift,” falls far short of reality and is nothing less than an abdication of responsibility. Incredibly susceptible to our influences, these young people are separated from familiar people and pressures. We cannot forget that they are captive audiences floundering in a sea of anger, fear, and sadness. We cannot squander this fleeting opportunity to offer them some other choices in behavior and attitude. When we let this chance pass us by, we take our places in the squadrons of those who could have made a difference but didn’t.

Corrections.com author Nancy Wade Zappulla is a teacher in a short-term juvenile detention facility in Vingina and is also the school's librarian

Other articles by Zappulla:


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