Let me first share my new mantra that I use with all of my community-based learning courses: while these 10 weeks of working in the community are beautiful, valuable, and important, living an entire life committed to being informed and supporting our community is more important and more valuable.
Throughout my weeks teaching community-based, education-focused Capstone courses at Portland State University, I have the privilege of reading my students’ journals as they reflect on their volunteer work and their learning about education issues. I actually enjoy my final grading of these courses because I learn so much from each participant. This week, I asked a participant in my Youth Enrichment Capstone if he would be willing to share his final discussion posting here. He very graciously accepted this proposal. Here are some thoughts on the volunteer experience from Derek Lamson, who recently found out that he has been accepted to the 2012-2013 GTEP Program at Portland State University. What lucky students you will have, Derek (his words appear below in teal)!
In [Susan] Neuman’s introduction to chapter eight [of Changing the Odds for Children at Risk] she calls for “a new way of doing business…one based on evidence”. Further she says there are “seven essential principles” (of interventions) “for children from families who bear the burden of multiple risks” (and these include) “high quality instruction delivered by trained professionals, not by aides or volunteers (Neuman, p. 180)”. Italics mine.
I’ve been a “Nice White Lady” three mornings a week for the last 6 weeks or so at an area high school. It’s been an interesting experience. The assignment I accepted as a volunteer was to help student writers write better. It’s a good idea. It’s not working real well, yet, but it’s a good idea and it’s new and maybe they’ll build enough traffic to justify everybody’s time and effort. My reception from students and staff has been coolly polite. My take on the culture out here is that it’s either a little shy around strangers, or maybe the stand-offish feel I get from folks has more to do with their previous experience with people with “Visitor” stickers on their lapels. By definition, we’re ‘short-timers’ – and if you’ve ever been really socked into an institution, you know you don’t put too much into short-timers. Why should you? They’re here and enthusiastic – or not – for a little while and then they’re gone.
So what’s this mean? Well… if I want to know anything, I have to ask about it. I’m not important enough to get briefed on the players or the program – except for my little tiny volunteer piece of it. It means things like people don’t greet you when you’re the only two adults passing in a hall. It means you can sit quietly in the counsellors waiting room at 8:30 a.m. and do your homework for an hour; and though a dozen people may walk in and out of the room, no one will ask you your business or if you need help. People blow off appointments, don’t return phone calls. You have that ‘Visitor’ sticker on your lapel.
All this is forgiveable, all this is understandable. I think this high school is really like a battlefield: you’ve got battle-scarred infantry seargeants, hopeful first lieutenants fresh out of West Point, and a mid-level officer corps working their butts off to keep the whole thing moving forward. (Sorry – at least I didn’t use a football metaphor.) NCLB is the enemy artillery, poverty and racism the trench in which the students and teachers labor. With tremendous dedication, they’ve brought their graduation rate up… … to half. At this point I’m not valued, because my contribution is not considered part of this effort. I think this is understandable, and I mostly don’t let it get to me. At this high school, I get it that I’m not even a green recruit – I’m like a Red Cross observer or something. In fact, until I prove myself, I’m pretty much irrelevent.
I suspect the principal at this high school would agree with Susan Neuman. I know if she was paying me $45,000 a year to teach Social Studies I’d have been invited in for a chat and a cup of coffee by now.
I will stay at this high school through spring term; I feel like I have projects I need to finish; and students with whom I am starting to build relationships – but on balance I think my experience is more for me than for them. It’s to help me answer questions like: Do you really want to teach high school?
 Neuman, Susan. Changing the Odds for Children at Risk. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009. 180. Print.
This particular volunteer placement has been a challenging one from which we have all been learning things, although not the things we expected when we began this work. My students taught me about dedication, patience, hope, despair, anger, and energy. They have taught me to learn from the unexpected, to stay put and wait something out if there’s hope, and to go elsewhere if your energy could be more productive in another type of volunteer placement. They’ve revealed some things about how programs succeed and fail, why assessment and accountability are actually important (not just buzzwords), and why incentives might just be the best thing since sliced bread. And they’ve inspired me because those who are about to enter graduate teaching programs, despite what they know about the challenges they will face, are completely dedicated to being amazing teachers. And I know they will be.