When I was growing up, community service was not really a “thing,” or rather it wasn’t a thing we did at school. Sure, there’d be the occasional food drive for which we’d bring in our donations of canned peas and tomato soup, but there was no context for these collections. Our teachers never engaged us in conversations about who our gifts would benefit or why people become homeless.
All of that changed when I began working at a Friends school. Here, everything we do – and I mean everything – is done through a social justice lens, and our teachers, students, and families engage in some type of service throughout the year. Student participation is high and the joy in giving is palpable. The Quaker value of Community plays a huge role in our school’s commitment to service. It’s not something we do to fulfill a requirement; instead it is part of our daily lives here.
This is why when the School asked me in 2016 to take on the role of service learning coordinator, I didn’t hesitate. “Yes!” I told our head of school and immediately began immersing myself in all things service related.
What I soon realized – and what my 11 years as a homeroom teacher at Friends affirmed – was that, yes, our students and teachers in each division participate in service learning; however, they also engage in direct service, indirect service, and advocacy work, which involves creating social change through grassroots action. Service does not always stem out of learning that is happening in the classroom. Sometimes we volunteer because it is simply the right thing to do.
For those of us who work in schools adding “learning” to an activity makes that activity sound smarter, more appealing. In the case of service, that tag might even justify to anxious parents the time spent away from our academic subjects. In my opinion, particularly at a Friends school where the Integrity testimony guides our actions, we do ourselves an injustice by labeling all community service as service learning.
At my school we are purposeful in our stewardship and we make those distinctions between the many types of service with our students so that they know the difference and can plan their actions accordingly, whatever those actions may be.
I explained all of this to our Head of School last spring when I proposed, and the School agreed, that we change the language – on our website, in our print materials, and even in my job title – from service learning to community partnerships. This new heading better supports and honors our philosophy which states we have a “ dedication to simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship” and “active practice of these [Quaker] principles nurtures empathy and fosters a sense of responsibility to the needs of others.”
We have much work to do as we continue to educate ourselves, our students, and our families in the many ways we can partner, shoulder to shoulder, with our community in sustainable action that benefits all members and that forges long-lasting relationships.