I once sat on a committee, with a team of seven or eight colleagues, to assess the senior projects of a group of students who were on the verge of graduating from high school. One of the students was a kid that I knew well. He described in great detail his community service project, which consisted of mentoring a group of freshmen on a fly fishing expedition.
In his presentation, he said things like, “At first, I thought it was going to be easy. But I sure learned my lesson the hard way. Serving as a mentor to a group of younger students was a real challenge.”
This was a guy who enjoyed reading the satirical newspaper The Onion, and wrote witty, irreverent columns for the school newspaper. He had a history of being the class clown, and his presentation, I could tell, was mostly a sham. I’m sure he went fly fishing, and I have no doubt that he hung out with some freshmen and gave them a few fly fishing tips. But his claim that he’d learned some hard lessons about mentorship and that his community service project was a challenge—I knew this young man well enough to know that he was mocking the committee.
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I’m reading a great book right now called The Dragonfly Effect, a how-to guide for people who want to use social media to have an impact on the world. Here’s a passage from the introduction:
“It turns out that the adage ‘money can’t buy happiness’ isn’t antiquated or false. The results of an experiment showed that spending money on others has a positive impact on happiness—much more so than spending money on oneself. This was striking given that the participants thought personal spending would make them happier than spending on someone else. Eudemonia, or fundamental happiness, is the result of an active life governed by intrinsic meaning, self-sacrifice, and self-improvement. Although it all sounds a little sanctimonious, the rewards of bettering the welfare of others have been illustrated by research too many times to simply ignore.”
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Here’s why I think my former student was mocking the committee. Performing community service is something that is inherently joyful. The idea that we can teach students the joy of service by making it mandatory, by coercing them into doing it according the timeline and specifications of school administrators, makes adults who associate themselves with this policy appear ridiculous in the eyes of students.
At PSCS, we have a policy that each staff member will dedicate time each school year towards a community service project. Students are invited—but not required—to join one of the projects. In fact, we value the process so highly that even if no students sign up, the staff member will still head off campus to do the work alone. Then the staff member gets to come back to campus and tell everyone the story of what he did.