Why Service Is a Skill Worth Learning

I overheard two students talking in class one day about their after-school plans. One said she would be volunteering at the local women’s shelter.

I hurried over, excited to congratulate her on this great thing she was doing—being part of her community and supporting marginalized groups. Lesson plans were already beginning to form in my head: writing prompts about social awareness, student interviews with our populations of homeless, hungry, mentally and intellectually disabled and those in poverty. I imagined students writing editorials to the local newspaper about the needs of our community.

I could feel goose bumps begin to form on my arms. I was brimming with pride for her—all this goodness and altruism, and she is barely a teenager? I was nearly running by the time I got to her and asked, “Tell me more about how you volunteer! Give me details! This is fantastic!”

She stopped. Paused. Looked at me and abruptly said, “My mom makes me go.”

I went a little limp and tried not to show her that I was kind of disappointed. “Oh,” I said, “But do you like going?” I was still holding out hope.

“Not at first.” More disappointment.

“But I really like going now,” she quickly continued. “I’ve learned how to help people and a lot of other stuff.” She grinned and was obviously proud of not just what she does to help others, but maybe what she’s gained from them.

Later on, I reflected on this conversation and felt guilty that I had been disappointed that she hadn’t done it all on her own. Of course someone showed her how to do it. Very few young adults become active in the community independently, and that’s OK and completely appropriate. It’s our job as adults to teach them how to become productive citizens.

If this student was beginning to understand the importance of service, what could other students do and feel and become if given the opportunity?

Maybe we should make service learning a requirement. Sure, many school districts elect to make this part of their students’ experiences, but what if public schools everywhere made it mandatory? What if service learning became part of our standards and benchmarks? Maybe as a result, students would learn something much deeper than how to complete a project or cross things off a to-do list.

We know, as adults, the importance of understanding the needs of our neighbors and why they may have those needs. Let’s show our kids. Let’s help them to see that each of us is an integral part of our society and that we cannot thrive without each other’s help.

Timm is a middle school language arts teacher and creative workshop instructor in Iowa.



I am retired now but have

Submitted by Inge Casey on 29 May 2012 - 4:41pm.

I am retired now but have been teaching of and on my whole life. I am also an avid news junky. Therefore I am taking the liberty to add my thoughts to the discussion.

Learning service is certainly VERY important, however we must go a step further. We must look at the societal impact of poverty, racial problems etc. Without getting a community understanding from our service we are likely to get into the confrontational pattern that is so common today in our political discourse. One book I can recommend along these lines is Liu, E. & Hanauer, N. 2011, The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government, Sasquatch Books.

I thought about this back in

Submitted by Robin Nelson on 28 May 2012 - 6:06am.

I thought about this back in about 1997 when my daughter was in middle school. I was coaching her 7th grade volleyball team at the time (at a Catholic school). I wanted us to do community service projects as a team during the season. I was raised in a family of seven children with parents who valued community service and always instilled in us the importance of sharing both your talents and your time. We developed three different options as a team so that we had some choices and time options. Parents were initially on board as it only required one "extra practice" per week. We volunteered at the local animal shelter, put on plays (short skits and talent shows) at the area nursing home, and helped at our own parish's food pantry. I did require at least two activities per player each month and once you committed to an event/activity, you had to be there to support your team mates.It lasted for 3 months and then when parents bagan to complain about the "time issues" we were told by the principal to stop. I developed an evaluation for the plaayers to fill out on what they thought of the experience and they loved it! Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn't muster the support of parents and administration to continue. I did however, take many of the students back to help at the places we previously went to. It was a great experience. i agree that service is something that must be taught and nurtured as a positive value. My son just took a class at Northern Illinois on service and that was exciting to see.

I teach psychology courses at

Submitted by Kim Taylor on 24 May 2012 - 11:43pm.

I teach psychology courses at a community college and I require 25 hours of service learning in every one of my classes from each student. I have specific requirements - one is that the service project must involve working significantly with people. That is, behind the scenes planning or indirect service isn't acceptable.

Most of the time, students are resistant. And, the vast majority of the time, students are thankful and appreciative of the opportuntity. They need pushed. . .

I do think SL should be required beginning in middle school and through college. I'm glad to see that more colleges are requiring SL as part of the application package.

I am lucky enough to teach at

Submitted by Lynnly Tydings on 23 May 2012 - 5:11pm.

I am lucky enough to teach at a private high school that has a service learning course. My students did wonderful projects this year; I just attended their graduation today and know that these young people have engaged in service willingly and have given & gained so much. Some have volunteered at shelters, with disable children in many settings, at schools as tutors, through Operation Welcome Home for the troops; some students went on a service-mission trip to El Salvador and experienced an Urban Plunge in Camden, New Jersey. This year we held a service fair to get other (younger) students excited about service. My students created video journals that hightlight their year(s) of service -- both the challenges and the joys.

For service not to be a burden, the school (adult) community needs to take it seriously, too. Many, many parents, teachers & staff go on service trips for the day or week with our students. While students are required to do 100 hours by the time they graduate and some do not fulfill this requirement, the vast majority find it to be a powerful, meaningful, maturing experience. They need opportunities to reflect and share on their experiences -- in class, with their peers but also moderated by teachers/adults who are committed to service.

I have gained so much from my students this year. I feel for the many service providers who get the kids who are not excited to serve. I wish that all schools could help students to build their skills and confidence in serving -- these are life skills and so important.

Lynnly Tydings

In order to graduate high

Submitted by kerri twigg on 22 May 2012 - 3:08pm.

In order to graduate high school, I had to volunteer in the community for atleast 30 hours.

I chose two places to work -- the local community centre and the art gallery. At the community centre I sold popcorn and chips to children, at the art gallery, I rented art to wealthy patrons. Neither place offered me the opportunity to share my true gifts and I felt underworked. In my adulthood, I have had opportunities to volunteer at events and on boards where my true talents are utilized -- this is addictive, fulfilling and enriches my life and the lives of those around me. I suppose the issue is setting up the right kind of volunteer experience for the right kind of person, and figuring out how to make it meaningful for all those involved.

Kerri's observations on her

Submitted by Jodi Morris on 23 May 2012 - 12:10pm.

Kerri's observations on her experience mirror what I have seen with the many students who have volunteered at various sites I have worked at. To be meaningful, the assignment needs to draw upon the students abilities and offer them new skills. Too often, the volunteer sites are too short staffed to provide the training and supervision for a challenging service project or do not have adequate notice of a student coming to set up a meaninful experience. This needs to be a higher priority for both the volunteer site and the school. Planning in advance by the school staff and the volunteer site could make sure that students are matched with the best site for them and assigned a task that provides a meaningful experience. I have seen the difference it makes when we give our students a real responsibility versus having them just observe because we think we don't have the time to show them how to do something.

I agree that it's important

Submitted by Karen Summers on 22 May 2012 - 10:34am.

I agree that it's important that as adults we share the experience of doing service to others as part of their early learning. I am not sure that enforced service learning gets at the value of this experience. I've worked in a service agency where I had many high schools students coming in at the end of the school year wanting to do their service hours with me. They became upset when I couldn't provide them with their full 40 hours. I had so many at one time - and yet needed volunteers other times of the year. I also found that none of the students wanted to do the work, just to do the hours. Given that I think there's more value in service learning in which adults mentor the children and youth, to process what is going on, the work, the meaning of it. Working alongside children and youth seems to be the more powerful way to instill this - as one commenter stated that they do this as a family. That's where I learned the pleasure of giving service to others myself.

Reflections on the Meaning of

Submitted by Lyon Virostko on 22 May 2012 - 10:23am.

Reflections on the Meaning of Mandatory

There are few important things in the experience of becoming fully human that are not learned through some form of education. Learning to first care for and then to serve others with our talents, time and resources does require the wise and patient modeling and training of others. But let's be careful in how we engage the concept of something being "mandatory". The word has two sides: the party in power and the party in submission. Power relationships between human beings are inherently wrought with problems and pitfalls. Unless wisely, carefully and reflectively handled, use of power can quickly devolve into abuse of power. In order for the use of power to be effective, the party in submission must trust and respect the party in power. In order to earn and maintain that trust and respect, the party in power must evince, in their approach to power, a high degree of empathy, love and humility. Unfortunately, the high-efficiency, bureaucratically organized nature of public schooling in the U.S. does not effectively support this power relationship across the whole of any given school system. Occasional glimpses of an appropriate power system can be discerned in isolated pockets, but, as a whole, the system in place does not support this type of power structure. Anything made mandatory within the present power structure runs a high risk of feeling coercive to many students and families who do not share the types of values held by the student's mother in Ann's example. And, the natural human response to coercion is resentment and rebellion.

Despite this caution, however, I am also in favor of mandatory service, just not in the sense depicted here. Service is mandatory within myself, for it arises from my growing awareness of the spiritual oneness of the human race and, consequently, of my complete and utter interdependence with everyone else. Knowledge and awareness of unity and spiritual purpose naturally develops feelings of responsibility rooted in love for others rather than fear of authority. This process of increased spiritual awareness may result from the dynamics of required service for some, but the ends cannot justify the means if the process is to work with respect for individual liberty and freedom of conscience as well. As education reforms itself to give greater regard to the spiritual capacities of human beings and to the teleological questions of our existence, students of all kinds will grow to understand that service to others is mandatory based on natural law as opposed to school credit requirements.

Service is a skill ,true.

Submitted by Mr.Suhas Patwardhan ( India) on 18 May 2012 - 9:27pm.

Service is a skill ,true. Nicely elaborated, Ann. Compliments to you for sharing your rapport
with the would be social workers with the readers.If parents are seen doing something for the
marginalized section of the society,for the have-nots,for the neglected sector ,the children
would imbibe such values by default. Practice is better than precept.Let the youngsters be
witness to such noble deeds.Goodness is not something to be enforced it is something to be
displayed which in due course will be imitated by the youngsters.
May God bless Ann in her social service !
God helps those who help themselves, & more so to those who help others.
I shall be happy to receive your comments.

Prof.(Mr.) Suhas Patwardhan
M.A.( English literature, 1976)
University of Bombay
Freelance Journalist

In the province of Ontario,

Submitted by Jay on 16 May 2012 - 6:47pm.

In the province of Ontario, in Canada, students cannot graduate from high school unless they have logged 40 hours of community service. I'm not convinced that this is the answer. I do a great deal of volunteer work in the schools, and it seems to me from talking with the students that they often resent what they are forced to do.

My own teenagers, now in university, found it to be difficult at times to get the paperwork filled out, signed, and turned in to the office; more often than not they just did their volunteer work and did not bother with the paperwork - our family is very much into volunteering in our community and does so regularly in many areas. I don't think that the mandatory volunteering was a useful thing for my own children, and added a certain "flavour" to the idea which wasn't positive.

I think that it would be good if schools helped to nurture and reward community service rather than enforce it.