Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned: What Young People Taught One Youth Worker

By Keo Xiong, Former AALEAD Staff
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff

In August 2013, I packed into my new Scion XB a few bags of clothes, some books, photo scrapbooks, and a few snacks, and hit the road on a three day road trip from St. Paul, MN to Washington, D.C. to begin my new job at Asian American LEAD as a Maryland Middle School Program Coordinator. Four years later, after having become the Maryland Programs Manager, in August 2017, I repacked my now-tattered Scion XB (thanks, DC drivers) with considerably less clothes, more books, even more photo scrapbooks, and, learning from my past mistake, lots and lots of snacks, and made the return drive from Washington, D.C. to St. Paul, MN. Although the past four years flew by and now seem like quite a blur, the immense knowledge and experiences I’ve gained working with AALEAD and its staff, youth, and families in the DC metro area will always remain with me, and will undoubtedly guide all of my current and future work.

As a program coordinator at AALEAD, my role was to facilitate after-school, weekend, and summer programming for youth, creating curriculum and planning events and activities focused on AALEAD’s three outcome areas: educational empowerment, identity development, and leadership opportunities. Each day was spent crafting (hopefully) meaningful, critical, and important lesson plans to encourage youth to think about, analyze, and situate themselves and their place in the world. While I already had many lessons planned out each year that I would facilitate for the youth I worked with, the youth had many more unplanned lessons that they taught me during my time with them. Below are just ten of those lessons taught and lessons learned, shared from one youth worker to another.


1. If You Want Youth (or, Anybody) to Show Up, Provide Food
– Take note: this is the most important lesson. No explanation needed.








2. Youth Are the Experts in their Lives
-Trust their experiences. Trust their stories. Trust that youth know what is best for them…even if they are wrong. It’s how young people learn, and how they grow. Unless they are endangering their lives or that of others (or, will actually epically ruin their lives in some way), young people should be trusted to try, to fail, even miserably, and to overcome and succeed. No need reminding adults all the ways we thought we knew it all when we were teenagers.

3. Embrace Linear Leadership with Youth and within Youth Groups
– Or, in other words, don’t be ageist, don’t be adultist. Also, don’t let youth be ageist, or adultist.

4. Share Control, Maintain Authority
– Youth have so much to say, share, and teach. Give them the tools, space, and encouragement to do so. Allow youth to help build the curriculum with their own topics and areas of interest. Provide more opportunities for youth to facilitate rather than for you to facilitate. Youth will step up – they may struggle, stutter, or succeed right away – it’s part of their growth process. Give youth control of their learning – it’s your responsibility to maintain authority by providing the overall structure and safe environment for them to do so, and to thrive.







5. Be Friendly, Not Friends
– Youth workers occupy an interesting place in a young person’s life: we are neither parent, teacher, school staff, nor friend. It might be easier for young people to talk to youth workers from community-based organizations, as opposed to other adults in their lives, but we, as youth workers, always have to remember: Be friendly, not friends. Support young people, champion for them, show up to their plays and games, you may even share many inside jokes with them, but at the end of the day, you are still responsible for their safety as one of many trusted adults in their life. Keep the boundaries clear.

6. Laugh Often, Laugh Loud, Laugh at Yourself
– I mean, genuine, eyes-squinting, can’t breath, kind of laughs that come from deep in your guts. I can’t stress enough how important it is to encourage laughter in youth spaces. Start the day with a joke. Incorporate improv comedy exercises into daily energizers. Reading out loud as a group? Use your silliest voice. It doesn’t have to be every day, but it should be most days. And, most importantly, join in on the laughs and be able to laugh at yourself. What I had to learn early on, and really work to improve, was to be able to laugh at myself. I was always embarrassed at being embarrassed, afraid of being laughed at. Working with youth has taught me to let go of that fear – if I am already laughing at myself, does it matter that others are laughing at me? All in good fun, of course.

7. Talk About Youth
– When you take time to acknowledge youth, that effort goes a long way. Is it a youth’s birthday? You should have already known that, tbh, and you should celebrate it, however large or small. Did a youth do well on a test they were dreading? They deserve an applause, maybe even from the whole group! Someone got their driver’s permit? That’s a milestone achievement worthy of taking up the entire welcome announcement time slot. Take time to talk about youth, and to let them talk about themselves. Begin each day with Youth News, an informal dedicated time for youth to give any announcements they want to share, like how many more followers they gained on tumblr or how bad today’s lunch was.

8. Talk About Yourself
– You don’t have to divulge your life story but you can’t walk around with a brick wall around you, either. As much as adults and youth workers may pry and prod and poke at young people to get information out of them, youth also want to know about us (mostly in order to be able to trust us). Sure, they may jump automatically to the really personal stuff, like who your partner is and where you live and who your favorite youth or colleague is (trust me, I’ve had to fend off these questions). At the end of the day, youth are a presence in our lives as much as we are a presence in theirs, and it’s important for them to know us as people, too.

9. Memes Matter
– Proficiency in memeology should be a requirement for every youth worker. Memes are a way of life, a language, a cultural norm. Just get with it.

10. Have Fun at Your Job
– Perhaps the most important thing (second only to food) is to have fun. Instead of planning a game for youth, try playing a game with youth. Are you making youth do skits in class? You better have one already prepared. Are you competitive? You can challenge them a bit (or, they’ll challenge you, more like it). Over the years, I’ve realized that the times where I truly got to know the youth were when I let go of my (detailed, four-page, scripted) lesson plans and just allowed myself to be. To be in the moment, in their moment, without an agenda or objective. To participate, laugh with them, listen to their stories, sometimes act a fool with them. I’m a youth worker, after all. My biggest takeaway from AALEAD youth is this: if I am not having fun at my job, I am doing it wrong.










No matter how much reading and research I did to develop the numerous lesson plans and activities I’ve facilitated for youth over the years, nothing I have read or learned about in textbooks and guidebooks could have taught me the valuable lessons and knowledge I gained by showing up each day to spend time genuinely getting to know the young people in the program. I am forever grateful, thankful, and appreciative of the opportunities I have been given to learn, grow, and develop with them, through them, and alongside them.

AALEAD youth, thank you for the lessons you’ve taught me, the laughs, jokes, and tears we shared, the many conversations we had over classroom-cooked meals, and the honesty, kindness, and support you’ve shown to me and to one another. Until next time!

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