Sandy Balascak draws a distinction between labelling kids as problem youth rather than youth with problems.
“When you say someone is a problem youth, you imply there is something wrong with that kid. However, that kid may not have a problem, but instead have gone through some kind of trauma or had something happen to them that has caused that angst,” Balascak said.
“Deep down these are smart and good kids. For a variety of reasons they are not able to reach their potential and show what they are capable of.
“Their behaviour is just a branch of the bigger question of ‘Why?’ You just have to keep asking that question until you get to the root of it. Once you reach that point, you can never undo the damage but you can teach these kids to manage their issues and turn them into strengths.”
Balascak has been drilling down to find answers to the ‘why’ question with her alternate school students for the past decade as administrator for the Agassiz Centre for Education with the Fraser-Cascade School District in the eastern Fraser Valley.
While she laughs at what she calls her sometimes unorthodox teaching methods such bringing senior citizens into the class and empathy sessions with babies, her overriding desire is to help each student find a healthy progressive path to adulthood and to change people’s attitudes about her students.
“Ten year ago my students were called thugs and criminals. Our school was in a rural area and when we moved it into Agassiz, people in town complained to the school trustees, saying we don’t want those kids mixing with our kids,” she recalled.
“Over time we changed Agassiz people’s minds on that so I thought why not try to change other people’s minds as well.”
That led Balascak to apply to teach an innovative course called “Problem Youth vs. Youth With Problems” through the UBC Okanagan Summer Institute in Education program.
Balascak hopes to share her experiences with post-secondary education students and current teachers, culminating with a final classroom session in which her Agassiz students will talk about their personal stories, what worked and did not work for them in school and how adults can gain a better understanding of how to get troubled youth back on track.
“The kids are pretty excited about coming here for that session and it will be interesting for the course participants because they are very open and frank in talking about their lives,” she said.
Balascak remembers an alternate education conference she attended years ago where a teacher like her talked about her students as being drug addicts and criminals.
“I thought to myself when I heard that, ‘Wow, if you believe that it will be become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to do better for them then just try to get them through school and wish them good luck in their life,” she said.
Balascak’s course will run from July 23 to Aug. 4, 1 to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. For more information on how to register online, see https://education.ok.ubc.ca/programs/sie.html or email the UBCO education faculty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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