Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 10: Service-Learning: What Motivates K-12 Teachers to Initiate Service-Learning Projects?

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 10: Service-Learning: What Motivates K-12 Teachers to Initiate Service-Learning Projects?

Article excerpt


In my 14 years of experience as a high school social studies teacher in a Midwest suburban district, I had the opportunity to work with hundreds of students--students who had grand plans for their lives, who worked hard, who were kind to their classmates and teachers, and who generally had positive outlooks on life. I also taught students who did not like themselves or others, who used alcohol and other drugs to ease their pain, and who lived their lives with neither hope nor resilience. I found one particular teaching method that seemed to engage all my students in more meaningful roles in their own education and helped them find a sense of passion and purpose in their lives: service-learning (Aquila & Dodd, 2003; Melchior & Bailis, 2002). This article examines the essence of the service-learning experience from the K--12 teacher's perspective, reporting the results of a phenomenological study of the motivations of seven K--12 teachers to implement service-learning in their classrooms. In the current climate of high-stakes testing and accountability, teachers are becoming more wary of such hands-on, student-centered pedagogy. As noted in the stories from the teachers that follow, this is unfortunate.

Service-learning is an educational methodology that incorporates student preparation, service to the community, and reflection, with links to the academic curriculum (National Commission on Service-Learning, 2002). In addition, service-learning pedagogy also contains four critical phases when implemented in the classroom: preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration/celebration (Kaye, 2004).

By involving my students in service-learning activities, I was able to catch a glimpse of the positive effects these activities had on the lives of my students. This method had a positive impact on their personal development as well as their academic achievement. Especially evident was the newfound motivation and interest in learning among my at-risk, disengaged students.

Shad was a bright student achieving much below his potential in my class. He visited a nursing home each week, where he typically played euchre with three men over the age of 75 and talked with them. One morning, I saw Shad in the hallway. As we passed, he said, "Hey, Mrs. Krebs! I was about to cut school today, but then I remembered, 'Hey, it's service-learning day.' I just knew I had to be here." It was on that day that I began to truly pay attention to the power of service-learning to change the behaviors and, therefore, change the lives of students.


Researchers report that students derive personal, interpersonal, social, and academic benefits from participation in service-learning (Aquila & Dodd, 2003; Scales, Blyth, Berkas, & Kielsmeier, 2000). In the area of personal development, students report increases in self-confidence, self-esteem, leadership skills, personal decision-making skills (Aquila & Dodd, 2003), career benefits, and spiritual growth (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Socially, students who participate in service-learning report a positive impact on their own social responsibility, civic attitudes, and volunteerism (Scales et al., 2000). Students see themselves as valuable resources in their communities (Eyler & Giles, 1999).

Students who participate in service-learning also report greater academic success (Eyler & Giles, 1999) and experience a positive impact on their feelings toward school and their grades (Scales et al., 2000). In other studies, student writing achievement showed significant improvement (Strange, 2004; Wurr, 2002), especially in their expression and understanding of complex issues. Students at-risk especially benefit from participation in service both through improved academic work and increased leadership skills and experiences (Boyd, 2001; Greenberg et al., 2003).


When teachers speak about their experiences in implementing service-learning, they use such terms as "motivational, rejuvenating, purposeful, gratifying, heartwarming, relevant, exciting, and necessary. …

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