An Oregon Provider Organization for Persons with Developmental Disabilities

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Focusing on Potential

Changing How You Approach Your Work

By Stephen Rex Goode

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I recently watched one of my favorite films, based on a true story and an autobiographical novel of the same title. The film was, To Sir, With Love. It was the story of a man who had studied to be an engineer and wanted to work in a communications plant, but was having trouble finding a position. The necessity of needing to earn a living lead him to accept a position in a London school in a rough neighborhood, but he kept seeking a job in his chosen field.

He was assigned to teach what would be, in American schools, the senior class. The students were about to enter adulthood with few prospects, most of them not sure why they even needed an education. As a result, they acted out their despair by baiting their teachers.

Enter Mr. Thackery, never having had a teaching position before. He paused on his way to see the principal to look into his classroom and began his mental assessment of the task ahead of him. He saw teenagers sitting on desks, papers flying, smoking, and general chaos.

His negative impression of his students was further aided by a jaded teacher who had nothing good to say about the class and the students. Some teachers tried to encourage him, but there was not much they could say that was positive. As he began trying to teach it was quickly obvious that the youths were going to live up to their reputations and even beyond that.

As you might expect in the many movies that have followed that theme, he eventually wins them over. I hate to provide such a spoiler, but I’m sure you could figure that out. What I want to focus on is what I perceive to be the turning point. Rewind to the beginning, and thinking about what Mr. Thackery faced in the first few days on the job and the picture he had in his mind of his students.

  1. Before even meeting them, their neighborhood had already provided a negative reputation.
  2. Before entering the classroom, he observed them from the door to his classroom.
  3. Before meeting them, a teacher in the school painted a picture of a hopeless situation and a group hardly worth the effort of saving.

With these prejudices in mind, he entered the classroom and got exactly what he was expecting. So, I want to say right here, since this essay is intended to train my employees, that there are parallels within how we begin our work with our customers.

  1. Before gaining experience working with adults with developmental disabilities, you may have some preconceived notions of what it will be like.
  2. All potential customers have been through a series of assessments going back to early childhood full of diagnoses, test results, and goals.
  3. In the interest of making sure that all needed information is available that an agency like ours will need in order to make and informed decision about whether we believe we have the staff that can be successful with a client, we receive information about risks, behaviors, and profiles.

Returning to Mr. Thackery, the pivotal point in his journey came after a particularly grotesque display of the kinds of behavior problems his students had. He reached a point where he knew that his focus on who his students were was all wrong. He needed a new approach and what came to him was the understanding that school subjects were not what they needed in order to enter adulthood prepared for the circumstances of their lives.

Instead of concentrating on who they were, he decided to focus instead on who they could become. He laid out the ground rules of respect and began talking to them about life. His new purpose was to prepare them for adulthood.

I want to share with you a similar journey I had. A few decades ago, I was the president of the Sunday School organization for older children at my church. I had been warned by my predecessor about how most of his time was spent patrolling the halls to find students who were not in class and trying to herd them to where they were supposed to be.

I was a complete failure and I developed a belief that teenagers were people to be avoided and that working with them was not going to be my calling in life. At that time, none of my children were teenagers yet, and I swore I wouldn’t let them act like the teenagers I was dealing with.

With that kind of attitude, you can see I didn’t receive the news I was about to get gladly. They wanted me to be a Scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop that our congregation sponsored. Being Sunday School president only had me dealing with them at church one hour a week. I didn’t relish the idea of spending one evening a week leading them and one weekend a week camping with them.

I accepted the position, because I always do, but I had more than their reputation to inform my negative attitude. I had actually been involved with the very youth I was now being asked to lead, and I didn’t like the idea one bit.

I eventually had a Mr. Thackery moment, and realized I was letting my experience with the individuals and the definition I had created for them keep me from making any kind of difference with them. In a way, Boy Scouts was meant to prepare scouts for life, but it’s more focused goal was to prepare them to be leaders. I had to look at them as potential leaders and give them the benefit of the doubt that they could become good leaders given some much-improved leadership on my part. I was a Scoutmaster for many years and still call most of my Scouts friends today.

When I later decided to make the transition from being a software engineer to being a social worker, I took the lessons I learned to college and got my Bachelor of Social Work degree at Concordia University. During my years in school, first at Mt. Hood Community College, I had two different internships at facilities for adolescent male sex offenders. The first was at a facility that was less secure and the second at the juvenile detention center.

In both cases, I encountered the stark reality of why we have to know a little bit about the people we’re going to be supporting. There, the youth weren’t just there because they were labeled as needing to be there. They were there because of the things they had done and you couldn’t just ignore that. Your safety depended on remembering it.

When you talk about assessments, part of my learning experience was to read their files, which included details about the crimes they had committed. I also was tasked with assisting with preparing them for polygraph tests, which requires the worker to help them fill out forms disclosing all victims and crimes that the court didn’t know about.

You can get a pretty negative impression of a person with that much of that kind of information, and it is completely necessary. What you can’t do, however, is let that knowledge hold you back from being humane and helping clients see the possibility of a better life.

To bring this all back to our work, let’s start out talking about what we know about customers that come to our agency. Not all of us know the same things. We, the agency leadership team often see assessments and lists of behavior problems and risks. Most of you at least see the goals and some information about behaviors and risks. Rest assured that we take those behaviors and risks seriously and do not assign workers to customers that the worker can’t handle.

Despite anything you may have been told by us about a customer you are supporting, what we expect from you is that you’ll focus on the customer’s potential and not their past problems. That’s why the part of their service agreement that you will see is a list of their goals. That paints a picture of who they want to become and it’s your job to help them, as much as possible, reach for that future.

In my years as a behavior support specialist, I saw assessments going back into early childhood. My task was to try to discover antecedents to maladaptive behaviors and write plans for workers like you to follow in order to be safe and be helpful. I took great pains in writing behavior plans to paint a picture of who a customer could become, with support. It’s not about who they once were. It’s not about who they are now. It’s about who they can become.

There is one rule that I think is absolutely true. People will react to how you treat them. If you treat people like the sum of their past problems and behaviors, that’s the side of themselves they’ll show you. If you treat them like who you sincerely believe they can become, they’ll want to become that and you can work with them toward a better future.

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