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7 Elements to Building a Sustainability & Service Learning “Ethos” at International Schools

by Laurence Myers, Sustainability & Service Learning Coordinator, International School of Kuala Lumpur

Recently I was asked to speak to a visiting group of educators and educators-in-training from Macau. I rummaged through my old slides, pictures, notes and the like and put together a presentation that would probably put the world’s most hardened HS students to sleep within minutes. :-) But this crowd engaged in lots of meaningful conversation and pointed questions. Slide nine, titled “How ISKL Develops a ‘Green Ethos’ seemed to generate a buzz with the small crowd of 26.

To be sure the role of a sustainability and/or service learning coordinator is often rather obscure. But when one takes a step back to look at what really is happening, one starts to realize the enormity of a position such as this. As Dr. Brent Mutsch, Superintendent of the American School of Dubai mentioned to me earlier in the year, the responsibility of this position (which, at ASD, is titled K-12 Service Learning Coordinator) is one of taking the school’s mission and making it real. To do that often involves a deepening of thinking, a more purposeful educational experience and, a deep internalization of positive empowerment through service learning. It’s a tall order. So, how is that to be done. Well, here is my list:

1. Determine your direction.
As with anything, one needs to know where one is going if one is to reach the destination. Missions, visions and definitions are all good, but so are the practical elements of the direction. How do we define sustainability? What does service learning look like to us? What characterises an “authentic” need? The answers to these, and many more such questions need deliberation and confirmation. They need to define the direction, but also be flexible enough to ebb and flow as movement begins in earnest.

2.Invite everyone to be part of the conversations
it is not possible for one person to change everything. Sure, one person might hold the title, but really community change is slow, gradual and everywhere. Theory of change will indicate that there is a nature to change that is somewhat predictable. First the innovator (meaning anyone bringing change to a system), then the change agents, the transformers and beyond. There are people waiting to give the green light. Others are already moving in the direction. Let them all lead the way (as long as the direction is mutually determined) in their own respective areas of leverage. Though this takes time the conversations are put into practical context and different people are able to address the change in their own time and place. All good stuff!

3. Take small (and big) steps
Most ethos building will take shape in small steps, and quite often will require steps backward as well. No matter, it’s those small steps that make a big difference in the big picture. A passing conversation, for example, might seem insignificant until one day there is an “aha” moment that takes shape, a change of mindset, perhaps behavior and, finally a change in culture. There will. however, be big steps too. Enjoy them and make the best of the opportunities.

4. Put it in writing
One of the biggest difficulties in international schools is attrition and movement. It lends itself to a sense of continuous change. But it’s important to recognize too that change can alter the culture of schools. Too little and it becomes bogged down. Too much and it creates a lack of direction, cohesion or purpose. This is why putting things in writing is essential. Written documentation allows for a school to establish a sense of history and guide those new to a community. Written documentation of sustainability and/or service learning policies, guidelines, expectations, missions and visions is crucial in this regard.

5. Demonstrate, Celebrate, Repeat.
There is lots of research to indicate the demonstrating learning (e.g. “making learning visible”) is crucial in learning. It provides several benefits. It allows for authentic exposure to a community. It also serves as a reference for what is expected and highlights to students, faculty, staff, parents and friends the significance of sustainability education and/or service learning. Once demonstration of such initiatives (including the challenges) is shown publicly the benefits of multiple, from students recognizing the value of serving to teachers understanding the ins and outs of service learning to a community seeing the involvement of students in changing the world… in short is makes a school’s mission practical and visible, both essential elements to supporting a school’s ethos.

6. Keep moving forward.
There will be days when a sustainability and/or service learning coordinator will walk away from a meeting frustrated. This too is to be expected. Changing perceptions and mindsets and sharing learning is not always delightful and the pressure, the push back, the limitations are often front and center more than the feel-good stories. Most anyone will tell you that this too is character building. As long as one maintains their sight on the purpose it becomes perhaps a bit easier to pick up that leg and take the next step. Tomorrow will hold a better day, to be sure.

7. Be creative and put sustainability everywhere you can.
There are moments when sustainability might not seem like it “fits”, especially for members of a community who don’t see its value. But sustainability is not a thing, it’s a habit of mind. Just as we want our grade two students to recognize the inter-relationships between human and natural behaviors, so too we want out administrations to recognize the effects of their actions on their students, we want parents to see the potential of students taking on service learning experiences, we want operations managers to see the benefits of sustainability on their environment, we want trip leads to acknowledge both the benefits and challenges of service trips. It is very difficult – and I would say impossible – for sustainability to not be somehow related to every conversation related to schooling, to education, to global citizen building.

The six elements above are not the end-all of sustainability and/or service learning. But for one with often little guidance, it’s beneficial to remember that all over the world there are people working on making the world a better place. But saying that and doing it can be very different things. The day-to-day conversations, experiences, decisions all form the essence of taking a mission statement and making it real. And what sense of pride when we notice our children doing just that!

Article reposted from Sustainability & Service Learning @ International Schools blog with permission from the author, Laurence Myers
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