The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

You may think that Christian schools—whose missions can often be boiled down to “Serve God, Serve Others”—may be leading the way in implementing service-learning. However, in their new book, Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, authors Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig say that often the power of service-learning is unrealized in Christian schools. Instead, it’s more likely that Christian schools have been doing some service activities, instead of genuine service-learning.

Serving or Service-Learning—What’s the Difference?

I am convinced that the phrase service-learning needs redemption—a basic reboot! When I mention service-learning to others, I hear the same mixed and often-confused responses that I mentally conjure up in response to those words. To this end, Swaner and Erdvig draw some helpful distinctions between what is serving versus service-learning. Service-learning is not any of the following service activities:

  • Service hours with no link to the curriculum;
  • Service limited to the inside four walls of the school community;
  • An activity or project that does not provide direct contact with those being served;
  • A one-time event instead of ongoing service (which helps facilitate relationships); and
  • Service that is done from a “charity” perspective, as opposed to community-minded.

 If these kinds of activities—though potentially valuable for students, teachers, and the community—are not service-learning, then what is? According to Swaner and Erdvig, it is “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school.” They explain that service-learning:

  • Connects community service or outreach with classroom learning and the curriculum;
  • Takes students outside of the school setting and into the local community, to address real community needs;
  • Creates authentic, meaningful relationships between students and those being served; and
  • Increases and enhances student learning, as well as students’ desire and ability to serve others.

 They further suggest that the true purpose of service-learning is “to address real needs of the community partner” (bold emphasis mine).

They also provide two key questions for administrators to help us differentiate and further develop our understanding of service-learning:

  • The first question is, “Are the service opportunities offered by the school also available to students in other settings, such as their churches, youth groups, or families? (Food and clothing drives are good examples of fairly universal service activities.)” If the answer is yes, then what’s being offered might not be genuine service-learning, as it does not harness the educational power of the school.
  • Conversely, and second, “Is there a meaningful connection between current service opportunities at the school and ‘real work’ of learning in the classroom?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the odds are that true service-learning is happening.

If as faith-based schools this is a critical outcome of our missions, we need to redeem the term service-learning and do it right.

The Promise of Service-Learning

With this clearer picture of service-learning in mind, we can better answer the question of why exert the effort of engaging in service-learning (which the authors do not shy away from saying is resource- and time-intensive). Swaner and Erdvig present research that points to multiple benefits to students who engage in service-learning, such as positive gains in: 1) academic achievement, 2) civic engagement, 3) beliefs and values, and 4) leadership, spiritual, and personal development. All of these are in line with the mission statements and desired student outcomes of Christian schools.

Along those lines, I appreciate that, in the section on national service-learning standards, the authors have also formulated supplemental standards appropriate for Christian education. These standards articulate four additional areas: 1) Christlikeness, 2) worldview development, 3) servant-leadership, and 4) lifelong service. While service-learning is well-practiced in many different educational settings, it not only can find a place in Christian schools, but also is well-suited to what we wish to see in students’ learning and spiritual formation.

Ultimately, service-learning can help students to grow in their identity in Christ, and in their ability to be His agents of restoration in a broken world. They can learn about how they are uniquely created for good works (Ephesians 2:10) and can gain practical experience in walking in those works, with Christian school teachers as helpful mentors and guide.

In fact, I will take the risk to suggest that genuine service-learning exemplifies the best aspects of deeper learning—learning through real work—the endpoints of project-based learning and what is called FLEX (Formational Learning Experiences) in the TfT (Teaching for Transformation) model. Christian schools serious about increasing student engagement and mission distinctiveness through deeper learning for their students would be well served by this book, in shaping and re-shaping service-learning at their schools.

[Editor’s Note: This post is co-published by the CACE blog and the ACSI blog in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]

About the Author

Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting DB Consulting in May 2010, he served as vice president of Learning Services and director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Dan regularly presents on teacher evaluation and professional growth, curriculum design, school improvement, technology integration, faith integrated learning, and student faith development at regional, national, and international conferences. He is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning published by Corwin Press. He can be reached via email at danbeerens@gmail.com.

Caring Too Much: Burned-Out Educators and Disengagement in Our Schools

Caring Too Much: Burned-Out Educators and Disengagement in Our Schools

A 2013 Gallup research poll across the USA reported that before the end of high school, 60% of students are checking out. Alarmingly, by 2015 that number jumps to 66%. Worse, 50% of their teachers are disengaged, and another 20% reach the level of “toxic.” It seems obvious that without engaged teachers, we cannot cultivate engaged students. Whatever it is that we’re doing is simply not working.

In the 2017 Quality of Educator Work Life Survey, 61% of teachers reported being stressed out, and 58% said their mental health was not good. And, according to a 2017 Harvard study, teacher turnover in the USA is double that of nations like Finland and Singapore. Even worse, half of teachers quit within their first five years. These numbers describe public schools, but after visiting over 100 schools over the past six years (including Christian schools), most of the Christian educators we met told us about similar challenges.

A lot of today’s material focuses on student engagement. If you Google “student disengagement,” you receive nearly 1.8 million hits. But, if you Google “teacher disengagement,” you receive one-third the responses. What if efforts to solve disengagement in schools has taken us down the wrong path? Are we putting the cart before the horse? I’ve gotten in the habit of asking principals to describe their strategy for improving the health and well-being of their teachers. No one has yet provided one. We need to ask ourselves, “How do we hope to win the battle of the hearts and minds of our kids—when we send in tired and wounded warriors to fight the war?”

Battle Fatigue Looks Like Disengagement

Take a moment to browse the diagnoses and remedies you find in your Google searches for teacher engagement. If we follow motivational experts like Dan Pink, then providing more autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to engagement. But when I’ve spoken to Christian teachers out on the raw edge, they don’t feel any lack of mastery or purpose. When we released Humanizing the Education Machine (Wiley, 2016), we began to hear from teachers, especially those on the front lines. Most were caught in some blend of exhaustion, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. Story after story had a common theme that sounded more like battle fatigue than not caring. In fact, most clearly suffered from “caring too much.”

We got some scientific evidence of this when we visited Next Jump Leadership Academy. Next Jump is an e-commerce company headquartered in New York City, with offices in Boston and London. Its success and unique culture have been studied by Harvard and described in several books. That success allows them to offer pro bono leadership training to invited groups. In 2017, I attended a Next Jump training program designed for educators. Next Jump’s director of wellness, Peter Chiarchiaro, gave each participant a resilience test. The test included a simple blood pressure measurement by laying down, and then standing up. The second test was a more sophisticated tool, measuring how much (and how well) someone carries stress. Peter explained the different assessments and what they reveal. For example, the blood pressure test measured heart resilience. For a person in good health, going from reclining to standing causes blood pressure to increase to compensate for gravity. But for those who are worn down, burned out, or in poor health, the blood pressure will drop. That simply means that when your body signals to the heart that it needs more pressure, it can’t respond immediately. This condition is called orthostatic hypotension.

At the beginning of day three, Next Jump’s senior leadership team greeted us, along with their Director of Wellness. They asked for our permission to go off the agenda. Since this was the first academy for educators, the results of the previous day’s assessments had caught their team off guard. The outcomes were so contrary to any previous leadership academy, that they went late into the night analyzing the results to make sure they had it correct.

Next Jump measures three levels of resilience: survival, sustaining, and thriving. Every educator in the room was in the survival range, running on empty. The conclusion from the two tests was that the educator group was experiencing battle fatigue. And that condition looks and feels like disengagement.

The Caregiver’s Dilemma

I was on the edge of my chair taking notes and recording Peter’s presentation and commentaries from the senior leaders. When Peter shared how this group compared to others, I heard a collective exhale of despair. They cared too much. Charlie Kim, the founder of Next Jump, explained what he called the caregiver’s dilemma: “Because your role is to care for others, and the work is endless, you fall into the trap of not taking care of yourself.”

For the first time, these dedicated and highly professional educators saw evidence for why they felt so tired, overwhelmed, defeated—and in some cases, depressed. That led to deeply emotional stories and confessions, a powerful time of catharsis. I had certainly made the intellectual connection between well-being and engagement but had never felt it emotionally. That day, the whole topic pushed beyond the conceptual for me.

“In Case of an Emergency”: Steps for Restoring Resilience

Let me share six simple lessons that our teams have found to be helpful for restoring educators’ resilience and engagement.

  1. Make your wellbeing and health a priority. Charlie Kim explained to the group of educators that one of Next Jump’s core philosophies is: “Take care of me, which allows me to take care of you.” He illustrated the point with the application of the simple flight attendant instructions: “In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks above your seat will deploy. Please place your own mask on first, then assist your child or other passengers.” The clear lesson: if the caregivers are not healthy, then no one else will be helped.
  2. Get enough sleep. Personally, improved sleep is the one changed habit that has contributed the most to my health, happiness, and effectiveness. Life’s distractions, long days of stress, watching screens before bed, and other interferences make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Whatever amount of sleep you are currently getting should be slowly increased another 30-60 minutes, while decreasing your screen time before bed.
  3. Take breaks during the day. You can’t run a marathon like a sprint. Teachers are “on” all day long. That is simply not sustainable. New research confirms that we all have a daily work rhythm that is similar to our sleep rhythm at night. Your brain maxes out at 90 minutes of cognitive load (as in teaching) before it has to rest. Otherwise, you damage it, like pulling a muscle. Your brain won’t signal the pain because it has no nerve endings. When you rest, you need a full 15-30 minute break—which doesn’t mean simply switching tasks. It means a walk outside, quiet contemplation or prayer, or a power nap—and always drinking a large glass of water on your break.
  4. Take your Sabbath seriously. Taking one full day a week for rest, reflection, family, and worship represent an ancient (and still essential) recalibrating of our relationship to time and work.
  5. Change your space; change your culture. That is the title of my 2014 book, and it describes the need to carefully and intentionally design the spaces of our lives and work. For example, the dean of education of the University of North Texas (UNT) developed one of the first curricula to support teachers with emotional health, as well as social and emotional literacy. And to support that approach, UNT is adopting a practice found in Singapore: a room for true recovery for teachers. They call it “The Living Room.” It’s a comfortable and restful place, not the dismal utilitarian break room that most teachers know so well.
  6. Find meaningful social connections. UNT is adapting a second practice from Singapore, which is a room for teachers called “The Pulse.” Teachers office together in this room. In fact, they are not permitted to office out of their classrooms. Why? Social connection is restorative. Isolation leads to poor mental health.

Every workplace—especially K-12 education—must recognize that the stresses of life and work will wear people down. In our work, we’ve learned this is literally a life and death issue. Yet our cultural voices whisper, “Run a little faster, work a little harder.” We must all try to resist these voices. Better yet, educate them! We know a vital and well-documented truth. In your own setting, start a conversation about the need to restore health and well-being in our schools, our families, and our communities.

About the Author

Rex Miller is the lead author for Humanizing the Education Machine, which tells the story of what great 21st century learning looks like—and how to bring that dynamic into schools. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems, including the waste and adversarial culture of the construction industry, and the chronic problem of workplace disengagement. His two books from these projects have both won international awards for innovation and excellence. His current project examines ways to create a healthy workplace in schools (www.rexmiller.com). He can be reached via e-mail at rex@rexmiller.com.

Navigating the Technology Superhighway

Navigating the Technology Superhighway

[Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, a recent book on challenges, trends, and insights on the future of Christian schools.]

Consider this: you live in a small town with many local roads. They are adequate for a time, but the population has reached the point of needing a highway system. The local officials, wanting to “keep up,” decide to build a network of highways to open up new ways of commuting. But instead of doing their due diligence to ensure the highways are designed to make travel more effective, they just start placing highways randomly.

Would this solve the problem? Maybe you would solve some of the problems randomly, but not likely. What kinds of problems do building roads without planning create? Traffic jams, accidents, extended commute times? We can agree that placing highways randomly would be an irresponsible way to approach roadway planning. And yet, have we taken this approach to technology in schools?

The Need for a Philosophy

Assuming we recognize the need for technology in our schools, we must start thinking about a “philosophy of technology.” Knowing what questions to ask when implementing a technology program in our schools is crucial. The way we choose to engage with technology in our schools might differ from how our neighbor chooses to do so—and that’s ok! Each school has its own unique needs and challenges to take into consideration.

Let’s start off with the “philosophy of technology.” Think of this as a school’s mission statement for the use of technology, which should answer the following questions: Why are we using technology? What kind of technology do we need? How does it tie into the overall mission and vision of our school? While technology is a wonderful servant, it can be a terrible master. Technology is an effective tool that can aid in teaching and learning. But similar to the example of planning new roadways for a city, if we do not have a clear mission and vision for technology, it can – and most likely will – be used in inappropriate or counterproductive ways. Schools must determine where technology will be used to advance the overall mission and where it will not.

Moving from Philosophy to Implementation

Once the school has determined its technology philosophy, there are a few cornerstone questions should be asked about implementing technology. The questions will vary based on what technology is chosen for the school and how it will be used. As a starting point, schools can ask the following four questions:

1. How will this technology empower our students to take control of their own learning? You might have noticed that more families have chosen to homeschool their students lately and one of the primary reasons is the ability to customize a student’s learning. By integrating new technologies, a school can offer students the ability to learn in new ways and broaden the school’s curriculum with classes online that are not offered on campus.

2. Who is responsible for providing the technology? These days, smartphones, tablets, and laptops are accessible to nearly every student. Determining whether the school or the student will supply the technology is important. There are challenges on both sides. If the school provides tablets, there is a major cost, but the school retains the ability to monitor activity more easily. If the students provide the tablets, the cost is removed from the school, but providing accountability can be a nightmare. Both are reasonable options, but the school must decide which works best.

3. How much personal technology will the school allow students to use – and when they can use it? Some schools require students to turn off (or turn in) their smartphones during the school day except for pre-designated short periods of time. Others deal with the distraction issues in different ways. Whatever the policy, it must be clearly understood and enforced. Helping students understand the spiritual and social challenges of personal technology is an important part of their education. A good resource is Dr. Kathy Koch (2015), who has written helpful books on teens and technology, most notably the excellent Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World. Another is The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch (2017), whose practical recommendations for families can be carried over into the school.

4. Is the proper support is in place for integrating technology? It is vital that before bringing in any new technology, such supports need to exist. Technology fails, security is breached, or an unanticipated problems arise. Adequate support must exist on the back end to address each scenario. This is both a personnel and a funding issue to be decided when as the school develops its philosophy.

The most helpful suggestion is for each school to gather as much information as possible, particularly from other schools trying to optimize their use of technology and guide their students to use it in a Christ-centered way. Sharing best practices and strategies will help students get the most from technology and overcome the challenges inherent in its constant presence. These commitments are critical for schools to equip students for living in this cultural moment for the glory of God.

References

  • Crouch, A. 2017. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
  • Koch, K. 2015. Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World. Chicago: Moody Press.

About the Author

Dhugie Adams worked as a firefighter and EMT after high school. His desire for authentic, meaningful discipleship brought him to Axis in 2014, where he traveled around North America speaking to students, teachers, and parents. Dhugie now lives fulltime in Colorado Springs, working as the Senior Director of Live Experience at Axis. He can be reached via e-mail at dhugie@axis.org