There has been some discussion in the education media recently about a number of Australian tertiary institutions introducing a service-learning component as a compulsory part of a student’s undergraduate degree.
At Notre Dame, ‘Service learning’ is integral to many degrees. It is a teaching method where classroom learning is deepened through service to others. One of the key elements to the success of any service-learning program is a sense of reciprocity and respect between those being served and those serving – where the experience is meaningful and worthwhile to both parties.
As a lecturer in education at Notre Dame, one of my responsibilities is to teach the Education, Service and Community Engagement unit. This unit is founded on the notion of integrating personal values/beliefs and volunteering. The theological concept of metanoia – Change of Heart – underpins this unit. It is my strong belief that transformative education must engage both the head and the heart, and transformative education thrives on community engagement.
This semester proved to be a wonderful example of how successful the service learning program can be. 25 second year education students completed their hands-on experience in community facilities such as the ‘Fresh Start’ drug rehabilitation clinic coordinated by WA General Practitioner Dr George O’Neill; St John of God Hospice; the Shopfront, an initiative funded through the Catholic fundraising organisation Lifelink; St Vincent de Paul, in primary and secondary special education support centres, and at the Drug Awareness, Rehabilitation and Management WA youth outreach program.
Our students’ response to their service and the response from their supervisors, was testimony to the value of such an important and valuable initiative.
Faced with challenging work environments it was rewarding to read the students’ feedback. As one student wrote in her journal after working with street kids: “It has been a tough night, throughout the whole evening I had been exposed to more and more sad stories of seemingly unending despair from these kids … I am determined to give what I can and hopefully, make some difference, no matter how small and insignificant it may be.”
As the course coordinator, I was particularly pleased with the feedback from the students’ placement supervisors who were lavish in their praise of our students. Comments included: “has shown excellent initiative in dealing with both patients and staff”; “very professional”; “has a great attitude towards the children”; “showed empathy and worked extremely well with our clientele”; “shows excellent skills in all areas of this clinic”; “keen to understand the individual needs of each client she supported”; “her approach towards the students has been outstanding.”
Given that the majority of Catholic secondary colleges in Western Australia undertake comprehensive service-learning programs, it makes sense for education students at Notre Dame to experience service-learning first-hand. These students can now put a human face to those, who for whatever reason, society often marginalises.
I believe that teachers impact the future by touching the hearts and minds of young people. At Notre Dame we want our teachers, those to whom we entrust our country’s future, to operate from virtues of compassion, service and kindness. That is, to be like Jesus who came to “set the downtrodden free (Lk 4:18). Service learning is a splendid instructor of these virtues.
Dr Shane Lavery
School of Education
Notre Dame University