How Can we be Better Supporters?
We’ve all grappled with the challenges that are presented by the label ‘student leader.’ We’ve all witnessed senior students barking orders at their Middle School peers as they misguidedly assume the habits of a dictator to ‘lead’ an extracurricular activity or service group. Equally misguided are some teachers whose interpretation of student leadership means that they act solely as warm bodies in rooms for health and safety purposes, watching another ‘student-led’ meeting descend into savagery of Lord of the Flies proportions and shaking their heads in despair as they answer their emails in the shadowed corner of the room.
How many times have we heard the phrases such as, ‘We’ve got to give them the chance to fail,’ and ‘They’ll learn from their mistakes,’ bantered nonchalantly around the faculty lounge during yet another exasperated conversation about student council meetings going over time by an hour or a group of disaffected year 9 boys being off task for an entire service trip planning session?
We know that students learn best through doing. Experiential service learning is particularly important when it comes to global issues in education. Phrases such as, ‘improve the world,’ ‘make a difference,’
and ‘find solutions’ adorn our mission statements. In order to achieve these noble ambitions, students need to be given opportunities to speak out for what they believe in, initiate action in these areas of interest and lead projects that seek to bring about positive change. However, if we are
committed to creating these opportunities to lead for students, we also need to be committed to equipping them with the necessary tools, skills and support to give leadership their best shot. Service learning connects community needs, global and local issues to curriculum. These real problems or issues not only provide opportunities for students to apply their learning, but also to make meaning by understanding, which
leads to transfer in the real world.
Let’s take an extracurricular service learning activity as a case in point. The service learning five stages, standards and benchmarks can help guide students to tackle authenticated community needs head on. Linked to curriculum, it leads students through the five stages (Investigation, Planning and Preparation, Action, Reflection and Demonstration),
each of which guides them in thinking and doing to ensure that:
• the need that they are addressing is authenticated;
• the action they ultimately carry out is beneficial to all those involved;
• they enjoy their learning through collaboration and shared decision making with peers as well as community partners;
• Learning occurs when they take risks and transfer their classroom knowledge and skills to service learning experiences.
So, how can we ensure our inspired student leaders reach for their own dreams whilst motivating others to share their vision, and more importantly, contribute to it? What can we do to foster shared ownership over projects so that all students involved are engaged and learning through meaningful participation? And most importantly, how we can ensure everyone is having fun whilst engaging in these student-led service
There is no magic formula; every group of students is different, as is every school and cultural context. But here are some tips that can help us be better supporters of our student leaders:
• Assume the role of mentor, rather than teacher, facilitator or supervisor.
• Know your students and ensure they know themselves and each other. Conduct a personal inventory: their passions, interests and talents are valuable. Take time to recognize them.
• Nurture and promote connections. This could be a common interest two students have, issues they care about, communities they are a part of, places they love.
• Inspire through storytelling. Share stories of change involving people and places that students can relate to and, in turn, share their own related stories about.
• Use media to engage students in current debates or to share tried and tested strategies for action.
• Ask critical questions at key points in the planning process.
• Give feedback through questions rather than statements.
• Be present. Listen actively and show an interest in everyone’s ideas. Probe understandings through questioning.
There are a vast world of resources available for teachers when it comes to service learning. All you have to do is reach out and explore!