The first three weeks are over. Most of our teens came every day in the first two weeks in order to get a sense of the classes we have on offer, and to spend time with each other and confer over who is coming on which day. The energy of the first two weeks is exciting, but I’m content when week three arrives with the sense that things are falling into place. There is more order in the chaos and a sense that everyone knows the score.

One of my favourite parts of this job (although I might say that line a lot) is conferring with teens about classes: if we were going to offer a current events class, would you prefer it to the class in the same time block? Who goes to the WWI/WWII history class? The volunteer may need to come an hour earlier; does that affect anyone’s schedule? If we had a debating class, can we see a show of hands of who’s interested? Sometimes I check in briefly after a class is over to see what a teen thought of it. All of the teens in our space seem pleased by this careful consideration of their opinion. Some seem almost embarrassed by it and if they didn’t care for the class, they’re apologetic and hasten to add that the volunteer is really nice. Their body language often speaks volumes in these exchanges and I note small smiles, turns of the head, and shifts of the shoulder with pleasure.

Why pleasure? It is fun to see people realizing that they matter. And I don’t mean to imply that in traditional schools kids don’t matter to teachers. Many teachers care deeply about the kids they teach and the work they do. But the system works against the relationships they could be developing with their students, although many manage in spite of it. At Compass and centres like it, the relationships that we are developing are paramount. One of our seven principles is that “Structure communicates as powerfully as words – and often more so.” By our structure we communicate trust in teenagers to make decisions about what they want to learn, who they want to learn it from, and next steps they want to take in life. This is mattering at a fundamental level.

As their mentors, we suggest, remind, wonder, look into, and ponder over. We have family meetings and discuss classes, tutorials, and future plans as a team. In the end however, it’s still the teen who is making choices at every given moment about his or her life. We may all be on the same bus, but the teen is at the wheel (some may wonder about the wisdom of using this particular metaphor). As adults, we may have advice about the best routes to take, how fast or slow to drive, how to make nice with the other drivers – we may even try to grab the wheel for a period of time – but in the end Compass teens are the designated drivers.* As they move into the next, more autonomous stages of their lives, we anticipate that their transition will be smoother in many ways than for those teens who are suddenly handed the wheel.

I recently wondered to a teen why he wasn’t taking a class that I thought he would have loved. His response was polite and clear: the topics in that class would bring up anxiety for him, that’s why he was not taking that class. I nodded and walked back to my office, savouring his clarity.

* Thanks to Allison at Princeton Learning Cooperative for mentioning this metaphor to me.