Directing Social Responsibility: Candid Observations
on the Job
By MIKE MACKENNA
Mike is Director of Social Responsibility at The English School in Bogotá, Colombia. He is also an English teacher there. The English School is a private school that covers all grades, from Pre-K to high school. There are about 1,750 students and 160 teachers at the school. The students are almost all Colombian and mostly come from wealthy families, and of the 160 teachers, there are roughly 30 foreigners and 130 Colombians. Mike is an alumnus of CWI's Summer Institute on Service-Learning
My job is a mix of being a service learning coordinator and fundraising coordinator. I am the first person to have this job, which is exciting because I get to create it from scratch, but also difficult because, well, I get to create it from scratch.
When I was thinking of the angle I wanted to take for this article, I thought I’d like to make a list of what I’ve learned to make me better at my job. Yes, this is a list of fairly obvious advice, but I’ve found those kinds of lists helpful for teaching advice, so hopefully some of you will find this list helpful for your service program at school.
1. I try to learn from other teachers and students as much as I try to train/teach them: I cannot claim to be an expert in service learning, or in running a school service program. Of course, even experts have more to learn, but since I am not an expert, I have a lot more to learn.
As I said before, that’s what makes this job exciting and difficult. I get new ideas all the time from teachers and students. I also come up with lots of bad ideas that don’t work. Hopefully at some point in the future service learning programs will be standard in schools, and experts will run them. But for now, I imagine most people doing these kinds of jobs are like me, people using enthusiasm and hard work to make up for a lack of experience and knowledge.
2. I have a plan I stick to: The school put me on performance pay this year, which means I need a list of things I plan on accomplishing each trimester, which I then review with the head of school at the end of each trimester to see what portion of my salary I’ll get paid. I made the list myself and then reviewed it with management to get approval.
Like the vast majority of people in education, I don’t do my job for the money, but money is important, so it gives me an extra reason to focus on the plan. Even if you’re not on performance pay, I still highly recommend creating an action plan for the service program in your school.
I’d say it’s especially important to do this because it’s so difficult to measure the success of service programs, and it’s too easy to be vague about what you’re trying to accomplish. Creating concrete plans and goals has really helped me avoid that vagueness.
3. I focus on producing tangible evidence of service activities: This is something else I do to avoid the vagueness problem. When I sit down with a teacher to talk about the service learning units they’re going to do, the most important thing for me is finding out what evidence they’ll have at the end that we can show off.
I do the same thing in my own classes. For example, last year in my English class we were working on projects to address issues that cause social isolation (bullying, racism, etc.). I didn’t plan it carefully enough, though, and in the end these kids had proposed these great projects that were never going to be carried out because there wasn’t enough time. This year, we’re doing the same unit but I know what product the kids will produce and when they’ll present it. They’re producing newspaper articles and poems about issues that cause social isolation and in their writing they have to include an action to take to address the issue (donate to a foundation, sign a petition, etc.). They choose the topic of the article and the poems, and the action to take, but I have planned when they’ll finish writing and when they’ll present to other students. That way the project can be student-centered but also produce tangible results.
I also put those tangible results on my webpage, ccctes.wordpress.com, which is a big help when answering the question, “What kind of service does your school do?” The next step with the webpage is figuring out how to get people to actually read it. So far mass email updates and updates on my professional Facebook profile have not been effective.
4. I keep meetings and professional development workshops small and short: My first year in the social responsibility job I did large presentations to all staff about service learning on Inset Days. I thought because I had a new job, and service learning was a new term in our school, that large scale presentations were the way to spread the word about the service program.
What I found, though, was that people might have been interested in service learning, but sitting in a workshop or meeting to talk about it very seldom led to anyone actually doing it. That fact led me to change my strategy- I started going directly to heads of department or to interested teachers to plan units with them. The meetings were usually very quick. I helped the teachers plan the steps of service learning, and offered support to anyone who had difficulties. I let the teachers decide when we needed to meet again, instead of scheduling meetings on a regular basis.
On Inset Days, instead of doing presentations to all staff, I am going to organize meetings between just a few teachers to plan interdisciplinary service learning units. I talked to teachers who already had units planned, and asked them what other departments they thought could participate in their unit. I’ll be doing these meetings for the first time when we come back from the Christmas break.
What I’ve decided about the meetings and workshops is that we should be using them to create a product, and that product has to be something the teachers will use very soon. Otherwise, the meetings and workshops are (hopefully) interesting but soon forgotten.
After a year and a half, then, I’m still enthusiastic about my job and feel much more comfortable in it. I find the students and teachers I’ve worked with excited about making service more important in our school. The good news for people like me, non-experts who are learning on the job, is that people will be patient with our mistakes because it’s easy to see the value of using education to contribute to our communities.
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