Paying it forward with Hackney Pirates


We love helping people out. Even more, we really love helping people to help other people out. Last weekend we were thrilled to attend the Teach First HEAPS Summer Festival to work with some sixth-form students. The students will be volunteering this summer with children at Hackney Pirates, a non-profit organisation who improve the literacy and creativity of young people in Hackney. We went along to offer advice on training on how to support and guide young people to get the very best out of them. And why are they called Hackney Pirates? Because they arrr…(sorry, we won’t make another pirate joke, promise).

The session was delivered by one of our staff plus Laurell and Umair, two of the co-creators on our pilot Star Track programme. We started off by asking everyone to come up with as many possible uses of a paperclip as they could think of…

Not recommended.

…and the answers were prettying interesting. We did this not only because it’s a useful brainstorming activity, but also because – as is mentioned in this well-known talk – the younger people are, the more uses they can think of. When it comes to creative thinking, children will have you beat every time. And, let’s face it, sometimes you just have too many paperclips.

Next, three groups each set to drawing and profiling one of three people: a ten-year-old child, a professional youth worker, and a sixth-form student. They sketched out each person’s hopes, fears and skills, as well as the questions they might be asking.

Profile of a ten-year-old

Once we had fleshed out each individual, we discussed how they would operate in a triangular relationship. How do their hopes align with each other, towards mutual goals? What is the connection between one person’s fears and how they relate to somebody else? How can one person’s skills help answer another’s questions? Collaboration isn’t just an important skill, it’s a way of life – and is woven into everything we do. Understanding your own skills and other people’s expectations is the best preparation for a successful working relationship.

Star Track co-creator Laurell with some of the participants

We then discussed this in relation to our own lives. Everyone shared an experience of having been helped by another person. The things that really stood out were reliability, engagement and going the extra mile to offer support. We came to realise that we all depend on other people in quite profound ways, and that there are specific characteristics that we appreciate the most. So, we made a list:

Those characteristics are in fact soft skills, and just as important as the kind of hard, technical skills you might need to learn as a professional. As these skills operate differently in everyone, we used our group list as the foundation for individual lists of everyone’s own personal strengths and weaknesses. The participants were enthusiastic and refreshingly honest in their self-examination.

Of course, identifying your skills is one thing – it’s another to put them into practice. Just as soft skills are different for each person, they help determine how you interact with other people in a way that’s unique each time. So, we brought out our toys, and each was an avatar for a young person with their own unique set of skills and challenges:

Bright, worry-prone Astro Boy

Active, distracted Penguin

Focused, shy Robot

Working in pairs, the participants used their own set of skills and that of their partner to figure out the best approach to each young person. The participants came up with some great ideas and activities that really utilised everyone’s strengths to the best effect. What we ended up with were three very different examples of how the sixth-form students could work with Hackney children this summer. With a better understanding of how to apply their own experience and personalities to become the best supporter they could be, each participant was more confident in their ability to work with both younger people and professionals.

Ideas on how to move into the future

Here’s what Laurell, one of our co-creators, thought about the session:

It was fantastic!!!! I really wanted to get involved because being a mentor myself, it is a fantastic opportunity to be a support to someone. I was a bit nervous about delivering the session but Joel and Umair were an amazing team to work with. The session was full of rich information and the small group allowed for discussion to be more open and honest. I think had we had more people then we would really have to cut down some of the activities due to feedback and a chance for proper discussion. However, my best bit was when Joel brought out his ‘toys’, the plenary session and most of all hearing that the students involved truly thought that they had learnt what skills they had and needed to improve.

We wish the best of luck to the Hackney Pirates volunteers this summer, and hope they enjoying ‘paying it forward’ with the young people they work with.