Developing Empathy through Service Learning
By Mario Saez, Grade 5 Teacher and Elementary Service Coordinator
The late author and educator Rahima Wade in 1997 offered one of the best descriptions of service learning in my view. She stated that service is more than an action; it is an attitude, a relationship and a way of being in the world. In fact, we may not be truly serving others if we act without compassion, engagement, and a willingness to be "with" rather than just "for" another. Twenty years later this remains true and the notion of "empathy" and the building of partnerships and relationships is central to how we approach service learning and our commitment to serve our school, local and global communities.
Having been involved in many service learning projects over the years, there have been times when I have questioned my intentions and wondered whether I was working 'for others" rather than "working with others." I can vividly recall a time working in the rice fields in a remote area in Myanmar and thinking that my action was really making a difference to the lives of people in this area. As we finished the project we had a brief conversation with the local people and asked them how they felt. They were polite and respectful but it became apparent that their needs were very different to what we wanted for them. Looking at it critically, I think my motive for helping was my personal need rather than the needs of the local community. This experience taught me that service without a "heart" as the core of one's action is doomed to failure in the long term.
In the elementary school at YIS we are working to develop a service learning program that is authentic, direct and allows our students to have meaningful experiences that enable them to understand and "feel' the needs of those they are helping. Our young students have embraced the opportunities we have set up for them this year. Each grade level has a number of age-appropriate service opportunities with which they can get involved, including helping the homeless, the poor, elderly people, young children and our local environment. Empathetic understanding is central to these activities and to cultivating long-term successful partnerships with local partners. The students are learning that meeting the needs of those we want to help must be an integral part of the planning process and that it is important to fully acknowledge their needs and wants.
Grade 1 teacher Zoe Page put it beautifully when explaining service learning and the idea of caring and fully understanding the purpose of helping others to her students. She said: "At YIS we give, we receive, we connect and we learn." This principle fully supports the notion that service without a "heart" is simply an activity that benefits one group instead of being a reciprocal act.
It is very rewarding to see our young students engaging and interacting in a caring manner with those who they are trying to help. When they prepare rice onigiri for our friends at the Chiku Centre and speak about their commitment to help others in need they have a clear understanding of the outcomes of their empathetic actions.
Supporting and working with children of the Kofu Centre Children's Home, our grade 4 students have come to understand that they can interact with each other freely and without any social boundaries regardless of different backgrounds and language barriers. This can only be made possible if our students truly care about their service engagement, and the results have been very encouraging and fulfilling for both parties. The young children from the Kofu Centre look forward to their monthly visits to their friends at YIS. Our children have developed an empathy towards the needs of these children and they are very tuned in to how we can make their visits something memorable for them.
In today's world it often seems that individualism and self are considered more important than community and togetherness. We can change this view if we take the banner of empathy and wave it proudly in every facet of our lives. As a school we have a major responsibility to instil in our community a belief in the value of bringing people together, learning from each other, teaching one another and giving the best of ourselves to develop a more just world for everyone.