"at the end of the day, you have a human being in front of you, and what they ultimately want is to be seen."
As part of the Teenacers’ series on how young professionals and young adults can help teens, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aynsley Rishaug. Aynsley is a Grade 8 Humanities teacher and parent of two small children. She is extremely passionate about teaching, literature, and building connections with others. She plans to remain a classroom teacher for most of her career, as this is where her heart is.
As part of the adolescent coaching empowering resilient success (ACERS) series, we are interviewing experts, like yourself, in order to help leaders, teachers, parents, teens, and young adults by sharing our expertise. As an expert in your field, how would you articulate some strategies your employers used in their practice, or organization, to helped you feel empowered, build resilience, and experience success? Essentially, how were you coached?
This will sound very obvious to most, but I have always believed that relationships come first. They come before academics, they come before performance, they come before product. At the end of the day, you have a human being in front of you, and what they ultimately want is to be seen, heard, and understood. There are definitely students I've had before who didn't improve in grades, but I do feel like they maybe came out of my classroom feeling like they now had someone on their side, who understood them and helped them to be heard. I think that the best thing we can do as educators and parents is to really try to separate what we want, from the student/teen's goals, thoughts, or opinions. They are very intuitive, and if they sense you are trying to work an angle, they will shut down.
And really - if you can acknowledge their feelings, show empathy, and ask questions like, "ok, so what does this look like if you do A..." (brainstorming solutions with them) what more can you really hope for? Our job is to connect with them, and maybe make them not feel so alone. That empowers a human being a lot, to be able to take independent steps forward. We can't do that for them, but we can support them emotionally.
As a young leader, how would you define leadership, as you have come to understand this term in your field, and why do you think it is important for teens and young adults to develop these characteristics and attributes before they enter the workforce?
I've been lucky to have some INCREDIBLE leaders in my career, and life, who have greatly influenced me. My first principal was possibly the most influential person in my career, as she was incredible, supportive, saw me for my strengths and talents, and went above and beyond for all staff. She really spoiled me. But I've had other great principals, Learning Leaders and master teachers who I have learned from.
The best leaders actually let you lead. They help you to find your own path, often within educational or professional guidelines, but they help you find your own way there. I think strong leadership is impossible, if you don't build a relationship with your staff. If you don't feel heard, or known from your leader, there is a disconnect, and you'll never grow from that person. I've done my best growth when I was celebrated, challenged, my passions were acknowledged, and I felt heard.
Teens can learn that the best kind of leadership they can show, is to also build relationships. People will be willing to work with you and move mountains if they know you care, but it has to be genuine. So, I guess digging deep and finding that empathy for another human being, and figuring out what makes them tick is a really important thing to be able to do. It also builds mental health strength and human connection.
Considering your experience and field of work, what do you think would make the most impact on teens and young adults before they enter the workforce to help them experience success? What skills and attributes would be the most beneficial when they enter the workforce?
I always tell my students that the stereotype of "teens with attitude" is disheartening and we need to throw it out. I've rarely encountered students who didn't care, wanted to be heard, or were passionate. Again, sometimes it takes time to get them to open up, so being consistent and persistent with them is really important. As well, if teens feel emotions that society has deemed as negative, such as anger, sadness, frustration, or even rage - these are all really normal and healthy feelings. Helping them to navigate WHY they feel this way can sometimes, depending on the situation, be really helpful. But labelling their anger as unhealthy, or bad, or not allowed, is really detrimental to everyone involved.
I was considered an angry teen girl, but when I reflect on it, I think I needed my feelings to be acknowledged, and I needed maybe some more support and connections. I also needed to be taught how to be respectful with my emotions, and how to regulate. These are skills teens really need! As a 36-year-old, I am only now learning strategies and coping mechanisms for these things, and I think that society would benefit if we started this learning much earlier.
I think if we can rid the world of the stereotype of labelling teens as angry and disenfranchised, it would be really beautiful. If we can see teens for the incredible passion they bring to the table, their fresh perspectives, and the fact that they have so much potential - I think society could embrace teens, and teens would feel more valued.
What 3 tips could you offer teens and young adults as they prepare to make a successful transition from mainstream education into the “real world”?
As a parent of two small children, I often get people saying to me, "oh just wait until she's a teen. You've got a world of hurt coming your way then." And I REALLY hate this comment. First off, it puts a giant dagger in the relationship between parent and child. It also makes it seem like the golden years of kids is when they are toddling about and cute. But when I'm with my students in school, I laugh so much, I see so much creativity, I see giant acts of bravery and kindness. I look forward to when my girls are teens, and yes, I know as a parent my relationship will be very different than a teacher/teen relationship. My deep hope though, is that I can use the tools in my teaching toolbox to help me parent teenage daughters. It seems like a gift to me, to get to that point in their lives where you can have deep conversations, find laughter, build on family traditions, and be this foundational support, and landing pad for them. All parents will make mistakes, and I think one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is to allow that. You'll mess up, just like your teen will - but acknowledgement, apologizing, and strategizing go a long way. When you mess up, model the apology. Model the self-reflection. Model the honesty.
As our teens transition into the "real world", I think having those tools will serve them well. They will make mistakes out there, but they can be honest, and reflective. And they can always come back to you. Their tether may get longer and longer as they fly further and further away, but between each flight, they return to the nest for rejuvenation. This could be in the form of having a cup of tea (this was a ritual in my home), or going for a walk - whatever it is that builds capacity to find that connection. I'm a grown woman with two kids, and sometimes I just need to play cards with my Dad and have him hear me out on my latest problem, or I need to sit down with the blue china and chat with my Mum. Or I need to laugh my head off with my sister, as we reflect on our own youth, and how this has made us the adults we are today. When we, as parents, realize that, our relationship will morph and shift as they go into the world and become more independent. It's nice to know that it will still play an important part in their lives, and our own, indelibly.
I love playing Hi-5 with our guests! Can you please share with us your first thoughts on the ACERS acronym? What do each of these mean to you or what final statements or piece of advice can you leave us with?
Adolescent:A growing human being! Not yet formed, but so much potential.
Side by side work with a partner to help you feel supported and guided. You are not alone.
Being empowered means that you literally have the power. You have so much more say in your life and the world around you then you realize, and when you start to navigate that with that perspective, it can be a really gratifying experience. Yes, there is a LOT we have no control over, but there is so much that we can have an important say in, especially when it comes to our own thoughts, feelings and reactions.
For me, being resilient is actually very empowering. I have pretty strong anxiety, but when I think about the strength and resiliency I have to work with this mental health struggle, it really makes me feel strong, rather than weak. We can apply that to so many different areas for adolescents.
Ok, I think this word is so wonderful, but needs a lot of adjustment in society. For so long we've had rigid views of what success is, but really that should be very individual. What success looks like for me, is not what it will look like for you. Once we realize that, the success story needs to have different plot and characters for everyone, I think we can actually feel pretty great about our own accomplishments.
Also, try not to sweat the small stuff, do your best and always be kind to yourself and others.
Thank you, Aynsley, for these fantastic insights.
We wish you only continued success in your great work!