How to deal with difficult students

During my work I often feel slightly intimidated before meeting a new group of students.
Its been like this since I started teaching circus, several years ago.
Most commonly it happens when I work with teenagers and I get scared of not being cool enough to keep their interest. Memories of teenage anxieiety of not fitting in kicks in and I suddenly feel like a self conscious 14 year old again.

When I’ve worked in refugee camps, I’ve been nervous about not knowing cultural boundaries for teaching physical activity  with the kids, with spotting or doing splits, or over what to wear as a woman.

During this trip to Kenya, I’ve worked with, what I thought would be, the most challenging groups so far.

In Nairobi we collaborate with The Sarakasi Trust, a centre for professional training aswell as social circus projects in communities that for different reasons has an extra need for circus training. Mainly in undeveoloped city areas, but also in places like prisons.

So, one sunny morning we found ourselves standing outside of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, preparing to play games, the same games as we play with our younger students, and to teach inmates how to juggle.
I was pretty nervous.
Since my only glimpse of prison life so far has come from watching American series it is fair to admit that I expected a bit of macho culture, hard boiled gang members and comments on the fact that most of us are women, and all of the inmates are male.
The half hour long security check where guards thoroughly searched our juggling equipment, questioning everyhing we brought with us, kind of enforced the apprehension of this being a very serious place.

They wouldn’t even let us bring sunglasses or sunhats inside and the Slackline took ages to be approved. A place where a slackline is considered dangerous must be pretty tough no?

So what awaited us on the inside?
A bunch of polite guys in striped uniforms welcoming us to their home, eager to play name games and throw juggling balls with us. Lots of people wanting to small talk, ask questions about Europe and circus and if we train a lot.
As in any group, there was a few younger guys who wanted to show of their slack line skills.

Before we left, a guy I’d talked with for a bit said to me;
“Thank you for visiting us. If you ever want to see me again, you know where to find me” then a playful smile, since we both knew that he was sentenced to life in prison.

Except for that joke, and the sunburn on my nose, since I didn’t have my sun hat, it was pretty much exactly like any other circus workshop I’ve given.

About a week later, we started a project together with our newfound partner organisation Amici de Bambini, AiBi.
AiBi put us in contact with a rehabilitation home for street children, Kwetu Home of Peace.
We came in during the first phase of rehabilitation for a new group of young boys. During the first three months of their stay the program focuses mainly on finding daily routines together. They are also offered sharing circles and therapy to process their experiences. We came in just two weeks after the groups arrival to support them with activities and training to enforce their self esteem, team spirit, joy and playing.

As we planned the workshops it was clear that some of us had anticipations considering the target group. We thought that teenagers who are not used to listening to adults, some who are at the same time withdrawing from drug addiction, might not be super excited to listen to a group of unknown foreigners, trying to convince them to do childish games and juggle scarves.img_4470
So I felt slightly intimidated by the thought of going there and trying to practice my authority. I’m very happy that did not stop me.

After my first workshop in Kwetu Home of peace, I went home, feeling ashamed of how predjudice I’d been.

When we arrived the 20 boys where all ready wainting for us, the room was literally glowing with expectation. I’ve rarely seen people so eager to learn and try out new things. Juggling, acrobatics, hula hoops, slackline. Everything we offer them has been accepted and given their full attention during workshop hours.

Now its two weeks later and tomorrow we have our last workshop with the Kwetu boys.
Seeing their creativity and being part of their training has been mind blowing and extremely enriching, also for me as a teacher. I cant help to think of how much we would have missed out on if we’d let ourselves be scared off by the thought of working with difficult children.

Couse here is the thing! I don’t think it would’ve mattered if the Kwetu boys had started out opposing us and the men in prison had been macho and self-rightious.
As long as we bring them something interesting and fun enough, in this case circus, they are going to want to learn, be included in the group and be friendly to the teacher.
By offering something the people want, you make yourself irresistable for a short while. And that’s how you make new friends.
That’s how you connect over cultural boundaries, over language difficulties, age, gender, sexuality, you name it.
That is how you start communicating, by offering something you know to someone you don’t know.
By playing silly games,training and by creating spaces to have fun together.

– Mira Unde, PWB Kenya

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