Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Starting a peer educator program

February 26, 2014

Four of our peer educators/leaders (Tyler Brezinski, Sasha Edwards, Serena Green and India March) traveled with me to Penn State to present at the PA Association of Student Assistance Professionals statewide conference Monday. Our two-and-a-half-hour workshop focused on Peer Education for Drug and Alcohol Prevention. It included our teen-created video “I’m the Least Drunk” and was very well received. A teacher participant from the South Hills area recognized me from “Ask Mary Jo” and asked if I would dedicate a column to some of the discussion that arose during our presentation. I jokingly stated, “I only answer real questions. I don’t just pull together information for a column.” When I opened my email Tuesday night I received this question:

Q.“Please help me understand why more schools don’t take on peer education. It’s obvious that it works. I just attended a workshop on peer education because I want to implement it in my school district, but I’m running into resistance. Some of the drawbacks discussed at the workshop included: lack of funds, disinterested teens/teens who are too overscheduled to get involved, no time to fit peer education into the school day, administrators/adults who don’t trust teens to teach and teens who do not commit to the program. Can you address these issues?” The question was signed “A frustrated teacher.” The postscript read: “Now will you answer this in your column?” I suppose I must.

Mary Jo’s response: My staff and I have trained more than 12,000 young people as peer educators or peer leaders since 1995. I believe in teens’ wisdom and strength. Each young person is a person of worth.

Research clearly demonstrates positive behavioral change in teens who are trained to teach their peers; our data includes peer educator alumni who are RAs (resident assistants), peer leaders and mentors after high school. Peer education is an outstanding way to reach a diverse audience while empowering teens to share their voices.

Evidence shows that peer-led education can increase knowledge, affect attitudes and intentions, and even change behavior of both the student audience and the peer educator. When a young person teaches a peer, the message is heard as a shout; when an adult teaches the same message, it is received as a whisper.

I’ll address the drawbacks you present from my perspective.

Peer educators make a difference in their communities – in my opinion, none of these challenges should stop you. Our peer educators’ thoughts follow.

Lack of funding: Money can be challenging, but creative funding can make the program a reality. We receive a small annual grant from United Way and seek grants from other sources regularly. This year a grant from Three Rivers Community Foundation supported our Real Talk Performers. Local donors help us with food (one of our main expenses), meeting space and transportation. Our adult advisers are volunteers. In-kind gifts also support us. Please don’t let a lack of funds deter the creation of an important program like peer education.

Disinterested teens/teens who are too overscheduled to get involved: Young people are unique individuals. Too often adults seek volunteers from teens who are already overbooked with sports, academics and jobs. Teens who are looking for connection may not be obvious. Get to know the teens in your district. Cast a wide net. Typically, four types of teens gravitate to our peer education program: 1. Teens who are looking to make a difference in an area where they have personal experience. For example, a young person may volunteer with our drug/alcohol program when a family member has struggled with alcoholism. (By the way, one of my guidelines is protection. I strongly discourage personal disclosure. Teens can teach without revealing painful situations). 2. Teens who need to do community service. 3. Teens interested in building a resume for college admissions. 4. Teens who like to get out of class (this group can be wonderful once trained). Bored and lonely teens exist in every school. Be available. Be open and nonjudgmental. Listen. Be real. The right teens will find you.

Peer education training needs to be dynamic, interactive and pertinent. Make it fun. Use teens to create curricula. Our alumni are always eager to return and mentor new peer educators. Stay in touch with graduates – they are outstanding role models.

No time to fit peer education into the school day: Our peer education program is an “out of school” program; although we teach as part of a health or social studies class, the bulk of our preparation occurs outside of school. We begin training at schools but then move to our Teen Center for subsequent training sessions. Peer educator candidates need to demonstrate commitment by attending after-school sessions. We have excellent relationships with local school districts; supportive administrators and teachers help us find time (most schools have activity periods) to initiate training. Continuity is important. We hold weekly meetings at the Common Ground Teen Center to maintain interest.

Teens who do not commit to the program: Teens are no different than adult volunteers. They need to be part of all planning – their voices need to be heard. Volunteers commit when the mission of a program resonates with them. Be flexible. Select strong teens as leaders – let them facilitate meetings. Yes, teens are busy – plan meetings at times they suggest and encourage participation at the level they can attend. Our teens commit because they want to be part of positive change.

Finally, the most challenging drawback – administrators/adults who don’t trust teens to teach: Our training is detailed and prepares teens as excellent facilitators, yet I’ve encountered adults reluctant to give trained peer educators a voice in their schools. One administrator told me, “How do I know what they’ll say?” My response is simple. I trust these young people. Administrators can’t know exactly what each teacher will say every moment of every class, but they trust in the educational process that creates a teacher. Our teens never teach alone – an adult is always with them to help with adult issues. Peer educators are not peer counselors. Taking on the responsibility of counseling is too much for a young person; they do not give advice. Their lesson plans are carefully constructed. We role-play responses to possible situations, and they know when to turn to an adult for support. After they’re trained, they’ve earned my complete trust.

We’ve traveled to many areas and helped others create peer-education programs. Just let us know if we can help. You can connect with me at or through Twitter at DrMaryJoPod. Good luck.

Peer Educator response:

If the program is interesting and relevant to what’s really happening in a teen’s life, you won’t have any problem attracting the right teens. Let teens guide you. Give us a chance to create activities and scenarios. If the classes are teen driven, other teens will learn. We need adult guidance, but we know what our peers are facing. Our perspective is crucial. The biggest criteria you need to start a peer education program is a passionate, committed adult. Most of us connected with Mary Jo, and that’s why we got involved in the first place. Once you start teaching your peers, it’s so much fun you keep at it. We know we make a real difference.



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