Tough love helps kids
SHE is a qualified teacher, but she doesn’t tell her charges, because Grace Smith is the person you turn to when you’re 15, you hate school and your home life is stressful.
For many of Warwick’s troubled youth she is the familiar face of the Southern Downs Industry Education Association.
The engaging local is the personable, but firm voice of reason for the association’s Get Set For Work program, which aims to bolster the self-confidence and build the practical skills of disengaged 15-to-17-year-olds.
Her mission is to get the 18 young people she works with each year either back into the classroom or started in the workforce.
But in her straightforward manner she puts it more bluntly: “I want these kids to be worthwhile adults.”
Under the program Mrs Smith co-ordinates, her students develop literacy and language skills, work with qualified tradespeople and undertake team building and self-esteem courses like lifesaving courses.
Yet she is realistic about what she can achieve.
“Some of these kids haven’t been to school regularly for a long time, some since grade seven,” Mrs Smith said.
“So the last thing they want to know is I am teacher, because usually their classroom experiences have been pretty negative.”
She also knows – having been privy to more confidences than most adults – of the difficult backgrounds of many of her students.
“I like to think for many we are helping them find their own way in life.
“A lot of them are just lost, from difficult backgrounds, with lots of stuff to deal with.”
At 60 and with a wealth of life experience to her credit, including a career as an early childhood teacher, she knows there will always be good and bad days.
“I love working with these kids, I like listening to their stories, but in the end there are some you can help and some you can’t help.”
Those who excel under the SDIEA Get Set For Work framework must first learn to trust her and then develop faith in themselves.
“This is a flexible program, so I need to be able to trust these kids, just like they need to be able to trust me,” she said.
“When they do something that loses my trust they know they have to work very hard to earn it again.
“But the kids set the rules; we sit down at the start of the program and work out together what we expect and what boundaries we will set, and they come down on each other when these rules are broken.
“I admit I am firm; if I don’t think it’s going to work I tell them they’re not ready. So yeah I’m very honest.”
However, she balances her candour with compassion, she is after all working with the “troubled, disengaged and most-vulnerable” of our youth.
“My job is challenging, I am working with kids who, after all, can’t function at school.
“So initially I find something about them I like and I focus on that and work with that.
“What keeps me going are the success stories, the kids who make something of themselves.”
Yet ever the realist she knows many find it difficult to keep it together when the program finishes.
“I am available to the kids for three months after they finish if they need help with work or school.
“Some I remain in contact with for years; they still come up to me and let me know how they are going and what they are up to.”
It’s the belief that the SDIEA program can make a difference that keeps her fronting up to groups many have given up on.
“You get your good kids who’ve had a tough start, and they go on to do OK, and that’s what keeps me coming back.”