Someone must light a fire

Life’s mountain top work is helping a young person have a better life.


Effective programs for young people and families do not happen by spontaneous combustion; someone must light a fire.

—Dr. Michael A. Carrera, Lessons for Lifeguards: Working with Teens When the Topic is Hope

With anxieties running high among NYC students, teachers, parents, and administrators, in preparation for tomorrow’s Common Core Standards tests in ELA, I thought I would post a refreshing and inspiring perspective on educating our most vulnerable youth. It comes from an unlikely source: child welfare practitioner and sexuality educator, Dr. Michael A. Carrera. In Lessons for Lifeguards, he recounts how he spent twenty five years trying to perfect his teaching skills, blaming both himself and his students alike for respectively failing to communicate and absorb his lessons on pregnancy prevention and risk taking. In retrospect, he realized that he was overlooking a fundamental aspect of the experience of at-risk youth: “I was not fully aware of the fact that the young people who sat in those community centers and classrooms during those years had matters to focus on other than my messages regardless of how well-developed and practiced my education technique was” (Carrera, 32). He is referring to such concerns as whether or not there would be food on the table for dinner, whether the electricity would be turned off, whether they would have to contend with an abusive parent when they got home, or whether they would have a bed in a shelter that evening.

Dr. Carrera thus came to the conclusion that “simply providing adolescents with information, facts, data, and activities to increase their cognitive capacity was only the beginning of the work—the first stage, like drafting an architectural plan to a building—and not the end stage. I didn’t need to give them information, but instead I needed to help them develop the desire to achieve and maintain a safe, successful, healthy life” (36; emphasis added).

If you work with teenagers—whether it be in education, child welfare, or youth development—Lessons for Lifeguards is a must-read. Writing from the heart, Dr. Carrera dispenses with footnotes, sharing instead the most profound lessons he’s learned from decades of work with adolescents in NYC. He reminds us that our most vulnerable youth need compassionate, trained professionals who can help them find the gifts within themselves.

Comment 1