When discussing youth work and professionalism we need to first think about what we mean by the term professionalism. Do we mean the professionalization of youth work which has occurred in some European countries like England, Estonia, Finland, countries which have established education and training of youth workers which relate to, for example in England a set of national occupational standards.
Or are we talking about how open youth workers conduct themselves professionally?
For the sake of brevity I will focus on the second term. I suggest that if you are going to describe yourself as a professional open youth worker, you are first going to have to ask yourself three critical questions.
First, is your being ‘professional’ going to distance you from the young people and community you are working with? How many of you know of other professionals that are not trusted or even liked by the people they are supposed to work with? Acting the ‘professional’ can be seen by some that you are trying to be better than them, that you are placing yourself in the expert position. Will your professionalism be a block in the building up of relationship and dialogue that is at the very heart of being a professional open youth worker?
Second question, are you being professional in your relationships with other professionals? Much of the work done by youth workers necessitates working with other professionals, are you holding up the mantle of the youth work profession? Do you arrive on time? Do you do what you said you were going to do? Do you always have the young person or group of young people at the heart of all of your interactions with others? Are the people and the community in which you operate clear about who you are, what you do, with whom and how? Being able to articulate your professional stance/remit goes a long way to enabling others to understand and respect you for what it is that you do.
Thirdly, are you certain about your personal and professional boundaries when working with young people? For some youth workers this is a harder question than for others, especially if like me they live in the same area in which they work.
Having a young person knock on your door at 3 o’clock in the morning because they have had an argument with their parents really brings this question into sharp focus and if you haven’t thought about it or even discussed it with the people you work with before, then by the time the door bell rings it’s a little bit too late! Seriously, are you a friend to the young people with whom you work? Would you socialize with them? Maybe, maybe not, in England we are obsessed with child protection and safeguarding, so asking these questions is an absolute no go area from the beginning. The youth worker has to protect themselves and the agency they work with from any allegation of wrongdoing. So in order to navigate the professional expectations of society and employers, youth workers wouldn’t dream of socializing with young people. Are they missing out on something? Have they gone too far the other way to avoid any allegations?
These are fundamental questions that take time to answer and reflect upon and there is the magic… if you are asking yourself these questions, thinking about the potential scenarios and are still able to build honest, authentic relationships with young people guess what? Congratulations! You have managed to conduct yourself as a professional open worker.
Are you certain about your personal and professional boundaries when working with young people?
by Pauline Grace (2015)
Pauline Grace is a youth worker and MA Programme Leader youth work at Newman University in Birmingham/UK.
Photo: © poywe/Harti Gräbner
Video: © poywe/Alexandra Beweis