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How Educational Leaders Can Make Social Justice Part of Their Service Learning and Professional Development

Written by Scott Wilson

Professional development is a fact of life in the education community. Every licensed position for educators, including educational leaders, in every state includes ongoing continuing education requirements designed to foster your improvement in knowledge and skills.

That work can make you a better teacher and a better leader. It can expose you to new techniques and new data from your field. And it has the valuable side effect of putting you in the shoes of a learner again, helping you identify with the students in your care.

But the traditional style and format of continuing education for educators sometimes misses the mark. There are a range of new developments and shifts that happen not just in your field, but in society as a whole. And keeping up with those changes can be just as important as the latest pedagogical developments.

Unlike pedagogy, however, it’s not so easy to keep up with social and cultural training just by sitting in a classroom. That’s why more and more educational leaders are looking for ideas and resources for service-learning for social justice.

Social Justice Is in the Spotlight for School Leaders

Some of the most important changes happening in American society today are in the field of social justice. Educators are finding themselves at ground zero in efforts to both push and push back on matters of social and educational equity.

According to a 2023 article in Education Week, 42 different bills in nearly half of American states had been introduced since 2021 with the purpose of restricting educator’s abilities to discuss hot-button topics like gender identity and sexual orientation.

They join additional efforts to limit or restructure discussions of race, systemic disadvantage, and inequity in American schools… despite schools themselves often embodying some of those disparities. And they come into direct conflict with other imperatives to increase diversity in school culture.

For someone with the soul of a teacher, there’s no better way to get equipped for dealing with these pressures than learning all you can about them. Your first instinct as a lifelong learner is going to be to understand before you act.

And this is where service-learning comes into play.

Engaging Hearts and Minds Through Hands-on Education

Service-learning is an approach that integrates learning objectives and curriculum with actual community service. As part of the course of instruction, learners go out and participate in projects that illustrate the goal of the lesson. That can be as basic as picking up litter on a playground, or as in-depth as planning and implementing a food drive for local homeless populations.

Service-learning fulfills one of the ancient imperatives of educators: turning lessons on paper into experiences of value in the real world.

As a kind of experiential education, service-learning activates your brain in a way that sitting through a lecture does not. It’s an approach that educators have long taken in areas such as ecology and the environment. In fact, some states, such as Maryland, have incorporated a certain number of hours of service learning into their high-school graduation requirements.

The U.S. Department of Education has also got in on the act. Their guidance on civic learning and democracy engagement highlights school and community partnerships. It’s considered a vital path to deepening civic responsibility and community identity.

local food bank

For students to learn those lessons, though, teachers have to know how to explain them. And there’s no question that social justice and equity is a tough subject to teach.

Why Service-Learning Is the Right Fit for Social Justice Continuing Education

There’s no better way to absorb concepts in social justice than service-learning. By combining learning objectives with practical community service, you not only see the theoretical aspects, but the practical effects of each lesson.

Service-learning in social justice has been used successfully in schools for students themselves. Qualitative research into overseas service-learning trips has shown significant impacts on participants. And it’s been shown to contribute to real improvements in personal efficacy, academic outcomes, and moral development.

So it makes perfect sense that the same approach can be useful for professional development for educators.

How To Develop Service-Learning for Professional Development in Your Organization

Like other kinds of professional development, you’re not expected to figure this out on your own. There are many organizations that are emerging to offer useful social justice training.

One of the leaders in this field is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative. SPLC has been one of the most important legal advocates for civil rights in the country since its foundation in 1971. But on top of litigating social justice projects, the organization realized that education was the real silver bullet for civil rights.

Created as Teaching for Tolerance in 1991, the organization today offers both classroom resources and a range of professional development opportunities, including:

Not all of these offer service-learning directly. But what they do provide are resources for educational leaders to create service-learning opportunities for students and staff.

The Facilitator Guides, in particular, offer a blueprint for putting together trainings on social justice standards. Although finding opportunities for real-world services is still on your plate, you get all the handouts, slides, and procedures you need to cover the classroom component of a service-learning approach.

The Most Effective Professional Development is Also Personal Development

As a school leader, it’s part of your role to both push and enable staff to absorb social justice lessons. But no one expects you to create those opportunities out of whole cloth. Finding trustworthy resources to shape your own service-learning programs is a solid first step.

Service-learning programs in social justice may or may not count toward continuing education credits for licensure depending on state requirements. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile.

There are more ways to evaluate personal development than just licensing compliance. Few teachers would say that the only important skills they employ in the classroom come from formal, recognized CE credits.

Just as important are the small pointers they get from mentors and principals, or conversations with other teachers or students that lead to an “ah-ha!” moment.

There are few better ways to create conditions where those moments are likely to occur than offering service-learning opportunities. With direct connection to diverse communities, and the mindfulness that comes with practice, both you and your team can create a more equitable, positive school culture. And you will do it while offering real value to the larger community.

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