Late last year, while studying at the University of Essex, I was given the unique opportunity to deliver a scheme called Democracy in Schools. Through this programme I attended a secondary school close to the University campus to teach politics over six weeks. The project sounded challenging, but also exciting as I could share my passion and knowledge from my undergraduate course with young people who may feel disenfranchised or unsure of the relevance of politics to everyday life. 

I found the experience to be truly enriching.

However, on the night before it commenced I remember worrying if my voice would crack half-way through a reading sections. Or thinking what if all of the students are quiet, or rowdy, or worse…don’t even care about politics?! Well, thankfully I’m here to share my key learnings with you in case you too are considering volunteering with young people through one of the many Young Citizens' projects. 

1) Be prepared

In the build up to my first day in school, I was feeling increasingly daunted by the prospect of the experience: after all, I was only a university student and not someone qualified to be lecturing kids about politics. Thankfully, I had attended a volunteer briefing to allay some of my fears, and I had of course been provided with a clear, easy-to-use facilitator guide so I knew the activities well before stepping into the classroom. 

2) It's normal to feel nervous

What if the students notice I’m nervous? Should I just laugh it off or keep a straight demeanour? As we sat in the taxi on the way to the first Democracy in Schools session it was clear the team of volunteers were all a little nervous. None of our team of undergraduate volunteers had any teaching experience in a professional environment, plus we weren’t sure if the students would respond well to learning about politics! (I knew I didn’t give much thought to the topic at their age.) 

3) Don't judge the students

After introductions my team split the class into groups, with me drawing the short straw to be with a group by myself. Democracy is a difficult concept for anyone to understand - even for world leaders and politicians - so I was apprehensive about how the kids would take to the topic and whether they had the maturity and interest to engage with the activities. Yet, as we began the breakout tasks my expectations were only destined to be subverted. Some participants already understood a few key concepts and were responsive to the evolving dialogue, while others who were quiet at the start became animated with well reasoned arguments as the weeks passed. Their confidence in the subject became very apparent, which made me feel enormously proud.

4) Don't give yourself a hard time!

Mistakes happen. Don't worry - we are human! Whilst flustered at the start of my Democracy in Schools volunteer experience, I asked the table of students to introduce themselves, but in my panic I forgot to make a note and instantaneously forgot everyone’s names. It was a bit embarrassing to get them to repeat all their names again - but as the session went on I began to realise that all the other kids were just as nervous as I was. However, working together we covered all the exercises with good debate and no challenging behaviour.

5) You play a big role in engaging the students 

Although politics was the focus of my studies, I wasn't sure if I had the talent or the skills to be able to handle student questions or keep everyone’s attention. By the end of the first session the kids and I began chatting casually about democracy and other related topics, with all concerns of nervousness or engagement thrown out the window. The Democracy in Schools model has a volunteer working with a small group of 4 or 5 children. As such, there are many more opportunities for students to ask questions and clarify their learning as you work through the session plans. 

6) Distribute your knowledge!

Do you remember when you were first taught politics; perhaps you were trying to wrap your head around first-past-the-post voting, exploring party systems, or grappling with what democracy means? It can be pretty gruelling to acknowledge several difficult aspects and workings in a coherent way. Now that I'm studying it as a degree, I have a greater awareness of the intricacies of my studies and how much further the rabbit hole goes than just basic parliamentary yelling. I guess it's skewed my vision of what politics in the real world is like - and especially how young people view it.

Although I was surprised that even at their young age - some were only 13 years old - that they knew what a democracy was and about elections and politicians. However, it was clear that there wasn't a connection between what happens in Whitehall and how it affects their local community and family. Over the six sessions, it was fascinating to see them realise how big of an influence politics has on their lives. So I urge you to take pride and be confident when it comes to participating in Democracy in Schools as the process can transform the participants sense of connection to the world. With Democracy in Schools you’re no longer just absorbing knowledge, but you've got a chance to share it!

7) Enjoy the experience and have fun!

When was the last time you really had a good talk with someone about the current systems of democracy? In your student house? With your parents, partner or your dog? I find talking about politics with those close to me or on my course can sometimes be a little stressful.

Democracy in Schools isn't about trying to suddenly sway young people to start parroting your political views without conscious. Instead it allows the participants to formulate their views and share them with their peers in a safe space. Most of the kids I worked with had rarely talked about democracy, yet here they were discussing complex concepts such as international relations and human rights!

Looking back at the skills and confidence I've developed, it really was so rewarding. Not just from the sense of achievement at completing the project, but building the trust with the students and seeing the kids expressing themselves politically.

So remember your job is not to only share your interest and knowledge, but also to create an environment where you can share ideas and inspire them on a journey to be politically aware and active - so they too can protect our democracy.

Good luck!

Sam

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