“I matter because you matter” – A wise man said this to me during a discussion about education and it has resonated ever since.
After I retired from teaching I mentored for about four years with the Prince’s Trust. As a Progression Mentor, it soon became obvious that this was not simply going to be sorting out a CV and researching suitable job opportunities. Many of the young people had complicated backgrounds and their mental health had suffered as a result.
These experiences included: permanent exclusion from school; being on the autistic spectrum and failed by mainstream education; waiting for over a decade to know whether right to remain would be granted having arrived alone as a child refugee; a bruising experience with Teach First (and many more).
Their ages ranged from 19 to 30 and although finding work or educational progression was the overall goal there was a lot more to unpick. My teaching career had centred around young people who found mainstream education challenging for whatever reason but this did not qualify me as a mental health practitioner and I was very aware that I needed to refer them and their families to expert help when necessary.
Moving from teaching into mentoring meant I had to think carefully about my approach. There is an inevitable power differential in the teacher/student relationship which is certainly not a part of mentoring. I saw myself as working alongside the young person and the mantra of “I matter because you matter” was at the heart of all my relationships with these young people.
I tried to help them find their core qualities and skills and persuade them that these could not be taken away from them by the world, however hurt they felt. At the same time I made it clear I viewed it as a privilege to have them share a small part of their lives with me. I was truly getting as much out of the relationship as I hoped they were.
All of those whose experiences I cited earlier were successful in the terms of the Trust – becoming permanently employed or in the case of the young person still waiting for settled status, gaining a place to do a nursing degree. However, it took time and for some it was a complicated journey.
I made it clear to the Trust that I did not want to work to a fixed timescale. It was all about their independence but the damage to their self-belief had happened over years and I was committed to rebuilding and facilitating their future success.
The pandemic put a stop to my mentoring. I did not want to do it via zoom and my own mental health took a battering. I felt unable to take on any new young people and found solace in walking.
What has been truly wonderful is that a few of my ex- mentees have reached out to me occasionally – not because they need anything but simply to see how I am.
The young person on the autistic spectrum messaged after nearly two years and took me for a coffee. One texts regularly to see how I am doing and another recently joined me on a walk.
I explained that I felt unable to mentor anymore as I did not have the mental energy to do a good job. The young person replied that it said a lot about me that I was not prepared to do a bad job. In many ways this was reflecting back to me my core values and reminding me of that which the world could not erode. Humbling but also very healing it emphasised to me that I mattered because they mattered.
A broader context
It seems that no-one matters to the current government apart from their cronies and that is only if there is an economic or power advantage. People are feeling devalued and therefore very angry.
There has been a lot said about kindness during the pandemic but that can be very superficial. Our consciences can be very easily salved by kindness; but what really needs to happen is that other people genuinely matter to us and we are prepared to fight for equity.
A society built on mattering means that when I need help, I will get it. I will not be reliant on the charitable kindness of others. There will be a proper social security system that catches us when we need it. Every time someone is treated with unfairness and injustice it devalues us all.
Understanding our reliance on others, appreciating it and investing in it will create a more balanced and fairer society.