Educators Raising Young People When traditional social networks fail students, who picks up the slack? Farai Chideya discusses what happens when educators and mentors step outside their job description to help young people in need.

Educators Raising Young People

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Teachers aren't there to like you, teachers are there to teach. That's one bit of wisdom you might have heard in a classroom or from your family. But when a student is in need, any number of people can step up and help. Some have offered a listening ear, or money for food, or even a warm bed when a student has nowhere else to go. And we're not just talking about teachers, but counselors, school health aides, and after-school mentors - some of whom risk their jobs to help young people.

For today's installment of our education series, we've got Kelly Stupple, a former dropout prevention officer. She's now a freelance consultant to youth-based non-profits. Quincy Mosby, a reporter for Youth Radio, and Ida Porter, a former school nurse in San Diego, California. Welcome, everybody.

Ms. IDA PORTER: (Former School Nurse, San Diego): Welcome and thank you.

Mr. QUINCY MOSBY (Reporter, Youth Radio): Hello.

Ms. KELLY STUPPLE (Former Dropout Prevention Officer; Freelance Consultant): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, Ida, what was your job description like when you began as a school nurse?

Ms. PORTER: Mainly, it was to run a pseudo-type clinic, first aid and that type of stuff.

CHIDEYA: And so what happened as you were doing your job? What kind of needs did you see that didn't really have to do with what you were hired to do in the school?

Ms. PORTER: Well, I think what I saw was that our school was a low-level poverty school, and what I saw was a lot of needs, a lot of students that needed things beside what they were given in the classroom. They needed someone that they could confide and talk to. They needed care above what we offered in the health clinic. They needed transportation to get to a clinic. They needed access to the clinics that a parent would usually do and can't - couldn't do. And so, you know, I saw myself falling into (unintelligible) care.

CHIDEYA: I understand that you did some pretty extraordinary things like starting a counseling group for survivors of sexual assault?

Ms. PORTER: Yes. One of the counselors and I did just that. We found that - it was about maybe six or seven girls that confided in us, and we wanted to do something to help. And so we started a counseling-type group. A group dynamics thing, and - which we found we could work through the different classes, and the kids would not have to come from one class every day. And it lasted for about a semester.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to come back to you in a second and ask you about some of the one on work - one-on-one work you did with individual students.

But, Kelly, you were actually tasked with trying to work with students - keep them in school. What did you end up doing that fits your job description? What did you end up doing that maybe you hadn't anticipated?

Ms. STUPPLE: Well, I think one of the things that's frustrating about schools for people who are in the helping professions is that there's a lot of emphasis on paperwork. So there are certainly a number of things I had to do - reporting to the district about things like attendance, for example - that would be in the job description.

But beyond that, I think there were a lot of other opportunities for creative ways of reaching students. For example, I ran some groups for students who were having trouble with their relationships with other students. We had some students who were involved in sort of battering-type situations with other students in a romantic relationship, and so we set up dating violence workshops, for example. And that wouldn't have been in the job description originally, but it was something that we saw a need for in the community.

CHIDEYA: What was the hardest part of working with students? And when - where did you draw your limits in terms of, you know, I can help you with this, this and this; but I can't help you with this even if it hurt you?

Ms. STUPPLE: I think there were some limits that had to be drawn with regard to respecting a parent's right to parent. There were times when I certainly would have wanted to step in and try to behave in a more parental fashion with a student, somebody who I saw had needs. But there were certain lines that you had to draw because you wanted the student to continue to respect their parent as well as respect you.

CHIDEYA: Once, though, you went out really searching for a student in a pretty rough area. Did you consider that something that was just a part of your every day job?

Ms. STUPPLE: It probably wasn't part of my everyday job, but it was certainly something that I felt compelled to do when I know the student had been cut loose by his family and was threatened by gang, and we felt the need to try to track him down before he was seriously injured.

CHIDEYA: Did you find him?

Ms. STUPPLE: No, we didn't. He was really good at hiding.

CHIDEYA: Wow. Quincy, give us a little bit of your story in terms of - you're someone who has been helped and has now helped others. Who really reached out to you, you know, after your mom, for example, was diagnosed with HIV?

Mr. MOSBY: Well, a lot of people did. To start it off, it was a counselor much like the people that I'm talking to right now, you know, who kind of just -they saw me kind of withdraw from school and not really want to put as much effort as I used to. And a lot of good teachers, you know, and counselors, you know, started to try to help me out and try to keep me in the game as far as scholastics was concerned. But I eventually dropped out, but after that, you know, programs like Youth Radio and You Sounds, like, they always left their doors open to me to do something after high school even if I didn't graduate.

CHIDEYA: So can you think of a particular mentor who really helped you?

Mr. MOSBY: Man, I definitely cannot remember. Many a night sitting in the car of the executive director of Youth Sounds, and him just, like, you know, talking to me almost in a parental role, you know? Like, I had a father, but we didn't really get along. But he, as you said, like, he really stepped it up and kind of tried to guide me through those really awkward teenage times, and, you know, just, you know, ask me about my day. Just like things that other people kind of just looked over. He kind of really just emphasized and always made sure I knew that, like, I had somebody to talk to.

CHIDEYA: Well, in case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya.

We were just listening to Quincy Mosby. He's a reporter for Youth Radio talking about someone who mentored him. Also, talking to Kelly Stupple, a former dropout prevention officer; and Ida Porter, a former school nurse at San Diego High School in San Diego, California.

Now, Ms. Porter, we actually have the privilege of having someone on staff who you helped directly. And some of the work that you did wasn't just about putting together counseling groups. It was reaching out to individual students. What kinds of things did you do? How did you extend yourself?

Ms. PORTER: I think most of the things that I did for the individual students was things that I felt that any caring adult would do. There were children that didn't have money to buy clothes for graduation, or for the prom, or sometimes even for food. And you can't listen to that kind of need and not - I could not listen to that type of need and not do something about it. I have invited quite a few kids that have stayed with me for a month, or a day, or whatever their need was.

CHIDEYA: Well, that had to put, first of all, a financial burden on you, a safety burden on you, and was it even against the rules for your job - for you to just have kids in your home?

Ms. PORTER: Well, I don't think directly that it was, but you're absolutely right when you think about the safety issue of inviting people that you don't know that well to come into your home. But I just saw them as children. And I think, you know, I think I learned this lesson from my mother. She was one that always opened her doors to people in need, and so it wasn't really scary for me to do this. I did it with an open heart, and none of the kids that I have invited into my home proved detrimental to me.

CHIDEYA: What kinds of successes have you seen? What kinds of people are you in touch with today that you were able to help along the way?

Ms. PORTER: One of the students that was in the group - she went to the university, and she's now a social worker. I was working at a middle school and she was a social worker assigned to that school. I was quite proud of her. And then the other student that was working for ABC - I was just thrilled. I was telling everybody about her. One of my babies, I would tell them.

CHIDEYA: That must make you feel great. And, Quincy, now you are working, teaching audio and video to people who might have some of the same need for contact that you did, how do you reach out to the younger people that you're mentoring today?

Mr. MOSBY: Well, I mean, I just had - be more of a friend to them. You know, a lot of people, when you're growing up, they try to, you know, come and kind of enforce their way of doing things on you. And they're like, you know, you're the child, and I'm an adult, and, you know, you do it my way.

But I find that, like, when you come to someone with the position of I know a little bit more than you about this, and I just want to help you accomplish what you want to do and just use me as a tool for you getting where you need to go, then they are more likely to cooperate with you than to, you know, try to resist, you know, your help. So I just, you know, I try to find out what they want to do, what they like, and just relate to them on that level.

CHIDEYA: Do you think talking to them about some of the struggles that you've had makes a difference? Can they relate to you better? Do they maybe even respect you more?

Mr. MOSBY: I think definitely because the thing is a lot of adults that I kind of grew up around - because my parents are kind of from the Midwest, and all my grandparents are, like, from the South, they have this kind of idea that if you show that you've made mistakes in the past, then you lose respect. And I think that's not true.

I think when you can show a kid that you're only human, too, I've gone through the same things that you're going through, and I came out of it, and I'm doing something different, and I'm, you know, successful. You know, it just shows them - it doesn't diminish their respect. It shows them that they can do that exact same thing and it gives them hope.

CHIDEYA: Kelly, you've worked both on the kind of hand-to-hand level with students and then also from the top-down, really looking at how systems work. There's always going to be great people like the three of you, but then there's a question of what systems need to be in place? And what have you learned about that? What systems need to be in place or how do the systems that exist need to improve to really serve students who are at risk?

Ms. STUPPLE: Well, I think one of the important things we need to think about is what Quincy was getting at, which is that what adults can provide for young people is a sense of historical perspective. And then we can also provide structures or venues for them to express themselves, and for them to have dialogue with each other.

We need to give young people the tools, and then basically get out of the way. You know, they need facts. They need to hear a broad range of perspectives, and then they need a safe place to explore their own perspectives. And I think that schools and after-school programs and other youth-based organizations can help students by providing those safe places, and then also encouraging students to dialogue with each other.

I think there's a lot of isolation, and what Quincy was getting at was that when he is able to talk about his experience as a young person to other young people, they can relate to that. And that helps break down the isolation and the barriers between people.

CHIDEYA: What about the isolation for people who are trying to help? I mean, it's going to be a huge, emotional burden and everyone's got their own life and their own families, their own friends. Did you ever find yourself feeling very vulnerable because of the work that you were doing emotionally?

Ms. STUPPLE: When I first started counseling, I was 22 years old, 23 years old, and I found that I was overidentifying with my students. Their problems were bringing up problems for me that were sort of connected to my issues as a young person. And I became emotionally distraught, paralyzed, unable to continue to offer the support that I wanted to offer.

So it was very important for me to get help working through my emotional issues so that I could continue to serve. And I think it's important for all people who did this kind of work to kind of get their house in order, so that they are able to be productive.

CHIDEYA: Ida, who did you turn to when you found yourself overwhelmed?

Ms. PORTER: I don't know if I ever did find myself overwhelmed because, you know, I am probably older than the other two guests that you have here. I -when I started at the high school, the kids referred to me as Mom. And I went from mom to grandma. And so my experience is that if you're able to share your life and that means communicating, not only offering what you have, but being able to communicate with younger people, share your life with them, then they're more easily accepting of what you're saying or what advice you're giving.

CHIDEYA: I just want to ask Quincy. What about you? Where do you turn when you need a break?

Mr. MOSBY: Through video games.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That counts.

Mr. MOSBY: Yeah. I mean, just - for me, because I don't really talk to a lot of my friends about the work that I do, when we see each other, it's, you know, we hang out. We just play video games, go to see movies, and that's, for me, that's, like, my time to relax.

But the thing is, like, the kids - because they never really stress me out mostly because the ones who are in their mentoring just seem - I've been lucky enough to mentor some really cool kids who just have really great attitudes and never really give me any problems, so…

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank all of you for sharing your stories with us.

Ms. PORTER: You're welcome. You're welcome.

Mr. MOSBY: Thanks.

Ms. STUPPLE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Quincy Mosby, a reporter for Youth Radio. He joined us from Youth Radio studios in Berkeley, California. Also, with Ida Porter, a former school nurse in San Diego, California. And Kelly Stupple, a former dropout prevention officer, now a freelance consultant to youth-based non-profits, and she joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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