A great article on the five qualities a teen wants in a role model:
1. Passion and the ability to inspire
2. A clear set of values
3. Commitment to community
4. Selflessness and acceptance of others
5. Ability to overcome obstacles
These five qualities should be what we all strive for as human beings, but some are certainly more difficult for others. I think the ability to accept everyone without judgment and to persist to overcome obstacles are the hardest for most people, this writer included, but when kids see that you are reflective and working towards that it helps tremendously. I think it starts with accepting yourself and stopping the negative inner chatter that pops up when something is difficult, and I think it also starts with sending positive messages to the world through your actions and your works.
To this list of important qualities for adults working with teens I would add the following:
1. Genuine interest in working with the teen. This is not the time to worry about padding your resume; this is someone's life, and you need to be genuinely interested in helping them succeed, showing them other paths and offering guidance when needed. If you have ulterior motives, perhaps volunteer somewhere else.
2. Total acceptance of the teen. This means taking them as they are, not as you think they should be. You are not there to remake them in your image; your are there to help them become the best parts of themselves and to show them another way. Many teens who seek out mentors do so because they do not have role models in their daily life. The last thing they need is someone to point out all the bad things; they are aware.
3. An ability to be an honest cheerleader. Teens know when someone is lying or being dishonest; they also know when false (or overblown) praise is being given. Your job is to be supportive but honest. If, for example, a teen asks for help practicing for a job interview or writing a college essay, they are asking for honest feedback to help them get the job and write clearly. Praising their clothes choice for the interview (instead of teaching them to make eye contact and work on a firm handshake) or telling them you like the effort they put into their essay (without pointing out gaping holes or false logic) is not doing them any favors.
4. A willingness to like the teen you are working with. Yes, as a mentor, you have to like the teen you are working with. This may not be a popular opinion; many people assume that mentors/teachers like all of the teens/students, but that just isn't so. If you are working closely with a teen and trying to help them change their life, you need to develop a relationship built on trust, respect and, yes, friendly affection. Teens are notorious for being surly and uncooperative, and liking them helps you get past that. Keep in mind the more they like you, the surlier they are apt to be. They know you will still like them at their grumpiest, so they don't hold back. It's a compliment.
Working with kids is the most rewarding, frustrating, challenging and joyous work on the planet, I believe. It changes you and makes you a better person. It is work worth doing.