ROBIN COX

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Interview by -Marci Messick

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Making a Difference

The Teacher-Mentor, the Kids and the M.A.D. Project

Personal Statement -

It would be good if young people realised , through their global networks, that they can positively impact the world – how good it would be if they adopted the ‘Reach One! Reach All!’ slogan and turned it into a positive viral movement.

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Lisa's story illustrates just how much of an impact teachers have on students' lives. As an educator yourself, what do you feel is the teacher's role beyond the classroom?

Teachers should have an active involvement in extracurricular programs, and they should be available to talk to students. Listen, listen and listen some more; help students set their own goals and become goal-getters chasing their dreams. Take an interest in what students are doing outside the classroom.  For example, what are their hobbies and interests? Try not to be judgemental, but at the same time, learn where you need to draw a line in the sand with regard to the emotional connection. I think it’s important for teachers to remain slightly aloof, and by doing so, they will not become too emotionally involved  (or attached) in the student’s life. Respect for one another is probably a better way to describe my thinking; that will avoid over familiarity, which can create many problems for both parties. It’s important for teachers to remember that they cannot ‘fix’ students or ‘fix’ families, but they can educate, coach, mentor, support and be available to listen to a student who needs someone to talk to. When a student says to a teacher, “I want to share something, but I want you to promise not to say anything to anyone …,” no teacher should agree to that. As much as possible, communicate with parents in order to build a strong community.

CJ is very much a Christ figure in that his untimely death ensures that the M.A.D. Club project, with its slogan 'Reach One, Reach All', will live on and become his legacy.   What lessons does he leave for teachers and students? 

Life is about choices, and every choice has a consequence. Be an authentic role model who never quits on students. Life is also about developing meaningful relationships and using your God–given gifts and talents to glorify Him. Without that strong spiritual foundation, a life will have an emptiness that nothing but God’s unconditional love will fill. Lisa found that love eternal. CJ displayed Christ-like empathy.

The kids in Making A Difference are quite remarkable, especially given the obstacles-- peer pressure, family turbulence, gang influence, etc.-- they must overcome to realize the M.A D. project. These very real obstacles set youth up for failure; yet, these kids were able to succeed in spite of everything working against them.  What was different about this group of teenagers? 

Remember, this was a two year journey with lots of ups and downs. Through his interactions with the students, CJ allowed them to empower themselves. He was facilitator, coach, mentor and teacher-- a significant, non-judgmental adult in their lives. He respected the students, and in turn, they respected him. He focused on their strengths and saw the potential in students like Lisa, Mary-Jane, Reuben and Cindy that they could not see in themselves. He subtly created an atmosphere where positive peer pressure was triumphant, and he made the subject relevant for the students. He taught them how to set and achieve goals and life skills.

So many kids today seem to lack empathy for each other, much less for their larger communities. Some say that kids are too engrossed in their electronic devices to care about the larger issues around them. Somehow this teacher was able to get through to them. How can we get more teenagers to take notice of important issues in the world around them?

Research is clear that young people need three significant adults in their lives (excluding parents), as they journey through adolescence to adulthood. CJ was an example of one such person. Teenagers will respond when they feel that they are being listened to in a non-judgmental way and that their opinions are valued and respected. Given the global connections students now have, I believe they are actually more compassionate than we give them credit for. Sometimes they just need some guidance and encouragement to step out of their comfort zones and reach out to those less fortunate than themselves. This is where having a volunteer adult mentor or significant other in a young person’s life is so powerful. The community services that the students in Making a Difference undertook became life-changing moments for some of them.

One issue you bring up in Making A Difference is that of internet. Lisa's class was able to use the power of the internet to launch their project globally.  The internet has changed the way we communicate, especially social media. How can schools capitalize on this technology?

Technology needs to be used responsibly, as was seen through CJ’s facilitation of the M.A.D Club project. It allows students to globally connect with others, which can be a positive education experience. Schools must be prepared to educate students and parents about the value of technology, also understanding that the natural inquisitiveness of young people might take them to places they should not visit on the internet. Accept this reality and have those open discussions, as often students are unaware of how, for example bullying on the internet can have serious legal consequences that could negatively impact their lives. Teach students how to research online responsibly, and teach them to research and read critically. Lessons can also be made more relevant if students learn to use this global connection appropriately.

Many kids join gangs as substitutes for family.  Do you feel that schools have an obligation to help kids who are at risk?  If so, how?

Absolutely. No matter what the circumstances, I believe that all children have good within. Sometimes they will need professional help to work through deep, painful experiences. There are so many examples of how teachers working with students in high risk environments (I don’t like the term ‘at risk,’ as realistically, all students are at risk because they have to make important choices at times) have become the stable, consistent, significant other, who displays unconditional love and care merely by being authentic. These teachers are able to see the potential in students that they, perhaps because of their personal circumstances, are unable to see themselves. The role-modelling that CJ displayed can be emulated by any teacher who genuinely is passionate about encouraging their students to become the best they can be.

The media here is reflected in a mostly negative light, at least until the end.  Ann Cooper seems determined to do what she can to derail the M.A.D. Project by focusing on possible gang affiliation rather than the positive work these kids are trying to do.  How do you feel that the media is representing or misrepresenting these at- risk schools and students?  

The media thrives on sensationalism, often appearing not to think or care about the story of the young people they are reporting on. How often do we hear positive stories about young people and their positive contributions to communities? In our community newspapers we may see a few stories, but national television is consistently full of negative news, and they also promote and support questionable ethical and antisocial behaviour themselves. I am concerned at the amount of political correctness in our media. All it does is add more confusion to the already confused, easily influenced young minds. Of course, I am generalizing a lot here. We all have to be careful we don’t label our young people, or place all the media in the same box. There are always exceptions – it would be great to see more.

One theme that seems prevalent throughout the book is that of boredom or lack of enthusiasm toward school and educators.  What can we do to foster more enthusiasm for education like CJ was able to do with the class?

Usually the subjects lack relevance to the lives of the students; teaching methods can be lacking creativity and dull, with way too much focus on academic results at the expense of the holistic education of the ‘whole’ child. Bureaucracy can place unnecessary burden on teachers, taking away crucial creative lesson preparation time. Many students have no idea how to build meaningful relationships and thus display antisocial behaviour, also hampering effective teaching. Threat of litigation has also removed much fun from the teaching life. Most important, though, as I have already mentioned, most students want to be loved and cared for, they want to feel valued and know that their lives have meaning and purpose and that’s where the teacher as mentor, coach and facilitator plays such a crucial role. Students, for the most part, have a great sense of humour, and there are times where teachers need to lighten up and learn how to laugh at themselves and have more fun in and out of the classroom.

At the beginning of the project, the class was able to secure sponsorship from the business community.  This sponsor ultimately pulled out at the mention of gang involvement. How can at-risk schools garner support of the larger community? 

In Making a Difference, it was a past student of the school whose company became involved in the M.A.D. Club. Faith groups can impact schools positively, if allowed to do so, through mentoring programs. Other companies and organisations can do the same. As we build community in ways like this, anything becomes possible. Many companies, though, want quick-fix solutions and results to satisfy their boards and other supporters, showing absolutely no understanding of the developmental journey of adolescents. CJ understood this brilliantly and the results are clear through the achievements of the M.A.D Club. CJ was also the trusted contact between the Business organisations and the parents, so a credible leader is crucial to such partnerships developing and expanding. We must never underestimate what students are capable of achieving when they feel loved, valued and have that sense of purpose in their lives.

Given your background as a mentor and as a teacher of mentors, can you explain how mentoring programs help students who are at risk for gang activity?  

That’s easy, as I have witnessed so many positive relationships in such challenging circumstances. Regular contact between students and mentor is crucial, with the mentor driving the relationship initially until there is a positive connection. This can take time, especially when mentoring students from high risk environments who do not trust easily. As mentioned above, it’s about a person becoming a consistent, non-judgmental presence in that young person’s life, allowing young people to travel at their own pace, feeling cared for and valued. As the relationship develops, young people come to see their strengths and, through the positive attitude of the mentor, life begins to have more purpose. Small, achievable goals are set and achieved and the young person begins to love the person they see in the mirror. The mentor begins to expose young people to opportunities beyond their environment. Mentoring is a journey and there are no quick-fix, easy solutions. The relationship must also involve lots of fun, and young people must always feel safe and secure when they are with their mentor. 

Much teaching today, it seems, focuses more on test taking than specific subject matter. Administrators and teachers both are judged by how well students do on these standardized tests. What is your feeling on standardized tests? 

It’s a difficult question to answer. When teachers end up having to have rote learning taking place to please their Principal and/or parents, who are only interested in results, I think we lose the purpose of education; we fail to fully engage students, promote a sense of curiosity and inquiry, ensure the students understand why the topic they are studying is relevant in their lives, encourage some creativity and, most importantly, allow students not to fear failure. This latter point is something that does concern me when both teachers and students feel anxious about delivering results. Is this an authentic education? In most countries I have taught and visited, there seems to be too much emphasis on content and not enough on the learning experience. I am not always convinced that those drawing up curricula always understand what holistic education actually looks, feels and sounds like.

One subject you touched on was the unnecessary burden placed on teachers by bureaucracy and how the threat of litigation has taken the fun out of teaching.  How, then, can teachers put the fun back in academia? How can they effectively mentor and coach students, especially when they're reviewed on the basis of students' test scores?

It’s so important to engage all students in the learning process and, when they are engaged, both teacher and student can have more fun, but not in the ways I had as a student. I remember teachers knocking me on the shoulder with a rolled up piece of paper or such like, a gentle punch on the arm, throwing the blackboard duster (yes, all those years ago!) at me to make sure I was focused and lots more. If I did anything like this in classes I teach, I could end up in trouble if a student complained, so it’s not worth the risk. Having said that, it’s possible to work within the boundaries and establish meaningful relationships with the students. Mentor and guide them to develop lifelong goals, especially how to set realistic and achievable goals, to chase their dreams, not to fear failure and so on. When effective meaningful relationships are established between a teacher and their students, I believe academic results tend to follow. In the book CJ taught the students Business Economics in that order ie, he made a point of getting to know the students and then he taught the subject. Many teachers don’t get that methodology, and many do not want relationships with their students – sorry to say, I would not want to employ such teachers no matter how brilliantly they think they might teach.

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About the Author:
Robin Cox has been an educator in multicultural environments for 37 years – as a principal, sports coach, boarding housemaster, symposium organizer and life skills facilitator. During that time he has also mentored about 1000 adolescents and, since 1999 has trained over 700 volunteer adult mentors. His passionate promotion of the spirit of mentoring has encompassed developing mentor training programs and manuals, as well as running seminars and workshops for teachers, youth workers and tertiary education providers. Married with two adult children, he is currently living and working in Brisbane, Australia as an Associate Head, Executive Director of Faith and Community, at a Co-educational school of 1500 students in north Brisbane. He is the author of four professionally published non-fiction books linked to youth mentoring by Essential Resources (New Zealand) and two professionally edited and self-published (by choice) non-fiction books promoting the spirit of mentoring and encouraging young people to become the best they can be. He has written under a pseudonym for a UK Parenting organization. His interests include watching most sports, jogging, fishing, tramping, mentoring people of all ages and writing.

In 1995 Robin was awarded a U.S. Grant and spent six weeks at Fordham University studying 'Thomas Jefferson – his political thoughts and action'. In 2006 Robin was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, which saw him travel to Canada and the USA visiting youth mentoring and other youth related organizations. He has his own website which he operates as a community service to those interested in youth mentoring and encouraging young people to reach their potential (www.yess.co.nz). He has coached and been involved in sport to a National level.

Robin enjoys writing, his major motivation being to inspire young people to reach their potential, to become the best they can be through the powerful medium of story-telling.


For more information you can reach Robin @
http://www.yess.co.nz/

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Robin Cox
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