Authentic Service at the Centre

Article by Daun Yorke

Children growing up in the two-thousand-and-teens are awash in a sea of information; making sense of our complex world can be a great challenge. The headlines flash on their computer screens, tablets and phones: Refugee Crisis, Global Warming, Planet in Peril. But what does this all mean?

It is easy for us to become immune to societies problems when dealing with constant sensory overload. So, how do we get our sons and daughters to develop empathy and to think outside of their own protective bubbles (that we have carefully cultivated for them)? Caring parents and teachers can set up opportunities for children to serve in the community and this is a great starting point. However, as teachers and parents who want to instill a love of service in children, questions always remain: How much do we guide? How far do we push our own love of service on to the students? Should we just wait until they are ready to initiate action?

3-1I believe that meaningful service has to be systemic, and it has to be about more than single projects in isolation. In my twenty years in national and international education, I have been involved in implementing countless service projects that dealt with structured service opportunities for students. Over the years, my students and I have been on house building projects in Fiji, installed pipes to bring water to a village in north Thailand and planted rice fields in Brunei. As much as I enjoyed every service project that I was involved in, I wasn’t satisfied that any project was sustainable and was bringing about real change.

Last June I arrived in Xi’an and took my place as the incoming Secondary Principal at Xi’an Hi-Tech International School. I arrived expecting to see classes in session, but what I found was an entire secondary school engaged in a week of service planning activities. Every secondary class was off the timetable and students in mixed-aged groups were working together, discussing service and making their own plans for taking action locally. The exciting aspect of this work was that teachers were taking a back seat and leaders emerged within the student pods. This was the type of service as action that I had always envisioned should happen but had rarely seen in schools.

Throughout the week, small groups merged into larger groups to view presentations. NGOs from Xi’an would come in, one by one, to share information about their work. There was moving presentation by Ethan, the founder of Little Fish, an organization that supports people with mental and physical challenges. On another day Tony from the Soup Kitchen talked about his amazing journey to feed the hungry through the Yellow River Soup Kitchen. Yet another day, students heard a presentation from Elim, a small but inspiring organization that supports a group of children living with HIV. The organizers of the Star Sun Home talked about their work supporting young adults with cognitive disorders.

Students were learning about local charities and they were making informed decisions in their student-led groups about what service work they would take on and which organizations they would support. The students were becoming empowered consumers of information and burgeoning social activists and project organizers. Teachers were not popping up to instruct students on what to do; rather, they were supervising, supporting and listening as students, researched, discussed and planned their service as action projects.

3-2Fast forward nine months later, and students continue to work together in small groups, discussing and planning service as action. The phrase “sustainable service” is being used frequently and children grapple with the concept of making a sustainable difference through long term action. Over the next three months, 39 service trips are planned, inwhich students will go out in their small groups to visit the local charities they are interested in helping. They will visit the Yellow River Soup kitchen to feed the hungry of Xi’an, or the 422 Dog Shelter, to feed and interact with the ninety dogs at the shelter, or they will teach English to migrant children at Little Fish, having learned some EAL teaching skills and strategies before going out. Our belief at the school is that it is essential that to serve you have a meaningful skill set to offer, so our EAL teachers are busy teaching students teaching strategies.

The trips are an amazing, teacher-orchestrated and supervised series of events, under the direction of MYP Service as Action Coordinator, Sindhura Mahendran, and supervised by all secondary teachers on weekends and after school. Where the student takes these experiences and how they move from inspiration to sustainable action is up to them as groups and individuals.

There have been soft starts and emergency calls to action by students. Last week, a student organizer realized that the dog shelter that they were supporting was down to five bags of dog food (that would last five days). The group met and brainstormed ideas so they could raise money urgently to help the shelter avoid a crisis. The conversation centred on the importance of marketing and creating awareness. One student commented, “There are no simple solutions. It will take time but we need to create awareness. Community awareness is the most important thing.” Another student commented that this awareness could go beyond the community and could be a world-wide campaign through the Internet. Multiple group members provided input and started to create a multi-stage plan.


The stage for meaningful action has been carefully set. Students have experienced life beyond the bubble and, on an ongoing basis, they plan, they reflect and they are starting to serve. The point here is not to create isolated, adult-directed, high-profile projects. Students know that service does not involve a photo shoot where selfies are taken with people they are serving, but rather that service is about reflection, interaction and supporting others. Another important aspect of service as action is making lasting connections in the community.

As parents how do we begin to foster a love of service within our children?

Service as action starts with awareness. I will leave you with some steps you can take to make that happen:

1) Research local and global charities with your child.
2) Expose your child to service work by connecting with local charities and volunteering together.
3) Be sure that if you are volunteering you and your child have a useful skill to share. (For example if English teachers are needed, take a crash course in teaching EAL.)
4) Be sure to return to the same organization multiple times and to build relationships
5) Allow time for meaningful reflection and fermentation of ideas.
6) Make service part of what you do on an ongoing basis instead of a major event that happens once a year.
7) Leave your phone and camera at home. This way you don’t have to resist the urge to answer messages and you will really experience meaningful service instead of just documenting it. Be there in the moment.

Daun Yorke is the Head of Secondary at XHIS. She is a nomadic educator who has spent 13 years in East Asia and is a lead educator and developer for the International Baccalaureate Organisation and mother of an IB graduate.