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.