When President Obama gave his annual "Back-to-School" address this year, he praised three extraordinary high school students for giving back to their communities. One was generationOn Youth Advisory Council member Jake Bernstein, age 17, who launched StLouisVolunteen.com, a website that connects young people with volunteer opportunities in St. Louis. The President urged students to become engaged in their communities, saying "America needs your passion, your ideas, and your energy."
What the President did not say should come as no surprise to educators. Teachers play a significant role in fostering the passion, ideas, and energy that motivates students to become engaged in society. This meaningful and important work happens every day in and outside of K-12 classrooms - work that can only be measured by the future strength of our democracy.
While policy makers focus on grading teachers by their abilities to teach subject content and raise test scores, there are many other measurements slipping through the cracks. Among them is a teacher's ability to change lives because of who they are as human beings -- how well they listen, encourage, and inspire children to be active participants in civil society. These vital abilities cannot be measured quantitatively yet they have immense capacity to change the world.
In a recent qualitative study, Civic Learning at the Edge: Transformative Stories of Highly Engaged Youth, college students recalled the powerful influence of educators in their lives. Memories included the elementary and middle school teachers who taught the importance of positive values like cooperation, compassion, teamwork, and getting along with classmates. They recalled simple service projects that made them aware of people in need. When students reached high school, the values they developed in younger years helped shape their civic identities.
In-depth interviews and surveys of students from diverse households noted three ways that teachers inspired young people toward service and active citizenship, outlined below. While the study focused on adolescence, findings pointed to the developmental nature of engaged citizenship and the systemic importance of families, schools, and communities throughout the K-12 years.
Teachers who tied their curriculum to service activities in the real world helped students gain skills in critical thinking, planning, organizing, and problem-solving. Teens gained most when service projects pushed them out of their comfort zones to see the world differently. Face-to-face encounters with people who were suffering or were different from them were transformative, giving them the internal energy and passion to make their own mark on the world.
Through a homeless outreach project at his school, Giovanni walked around Philadelphia "finding people who were homeless...talking to them, saying this is where you can get a shower, clean clothes, or a permanent mailing address. This other world opens to you. You find they are really people just like you."
When Danielle participated in a geography class service-learning project through Heifer International, it ignited a passion for citizenship and environmental stewardship. She changed the way she saw service from "something you did on the side when you had time" to "a lifestyle."
While teachers deliver curriculum, facilitate service-learning projects, and teach about the workings of democracy, this study discovered an often hidden and invaluable contribution they make to teenagers who go on to become engaged citizens. Over 90% of study participants mentioned their high school teachers as being instrumental to the committed young adults they became. Overwhelmingly, students admitted that teachers mentored them in ways that developed self-efficacy. Without belief in themselves, students said they would not have the belief that they could change the world.
What did teachers do that nurtured self-efficacy? Students said they 1) supported and encouraged, 2) listened, 3) set high expectations, 4) showed interest in them as individuals separate from academics or civic activities, 5) fostered self-decision-making, and 6) provided another perspective during problem-solving.
Following a service-learning project at the age of 15, Ashley turned her love of media into educating people about recycling. Speaking of two high school teachers, she said, "They were right alongside me....and I could go to them and talk about anything, any difficulties. I talked to them about everything. It was like my possibilities were endless for whatever I wanted to do in the world."
More than half of the civically-engaged youth in this study named a teacher as their civic role model, with the remainder, in order, divided between civic leaders, parents, everyday people, clergy, and peers. Civic role models were described quite differently from teachers who helped nurture self-efficacy, although occasionally they were the same.
Ranked in order of importance, students valued teacher civic role models for their 1) passion and ability to inspire, 2) clear set of values, 3) commitment to community, 4) selflessness, and 5) ability to overcome obstacles in life.
Now a volunteer in Boston's Chinatown, Ryan leads gambling addiction awareness seminars to Asian youth. Speaking of his teachers, he said, "the fact that they are so dedicated to teaching students and helping students and empowering students...that's such a meaningful gesture. They are always trying to give back to the next generation. That really inspires me."
It is no surprise that teachers change lives through actions that encourage service and learning in and outside the classroom. But they also change lives because of who they are as human beings -- how well they listen, encourage, and help children believe in themselves.
Society will grade teachers, not only by test scores, but by how our young people develop into caring, compassionate, respectful, and engaged members of our democracy. When political and corporate leaders figure this out, perhaps we will recommit ourselves to the civic mission of schools and further develop the capacity of teachers to foster social change and innovation.
GenerationOn: Youth division of Points of Light Institute encourages teachers, after-school program leaders, and parents to inspire, equip, and mobilize youth to take action that changes the world and themselves through service. Resources are available for kids and teens that focus on issues including the environment, animals, homelessness, hunger, literacy, and seniors.
CIRCLE: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement provides the latest research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans and the civic mission of schools.
©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.