Kids—and people in general—have a hunger to be of service. I’m reminded of this hunger on Martin Luther King, Jr Day.
I saw this hunger recently when I peered into a classroom at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. It was almost an hour after school had ended when I would expect kids to be out eating pizza, or on their way home to play video games, or buried in SnapChat.
And yet, fifteen of our 12th graders were clustered around tables discussing a piece of text. Each group was led by a student from our 12th-grade peer tutoring program in which 12th graders who are succeeding academically tutor 12th graders who are struggling to graduate.
“You should write that down,” said Maylin to her group, firmly. The students she was tutoring immediately started writing, knowing she meant business, and knowing that she was sharing whatever had helped her to succeed. Maylin is a bright, assertive 12th grader who has excelled, is enrolled in several advanced classes, and plans to go to medical school. Maylin was showing her tutees how she would study, sharing her academic “secrets,” rather than keeping them to herself to stay ahead.
We initially didn’t ask Maylin to apply for the tutoring program, thinking she might have too much on her plate. I remember Maylin’s hurt face when she asked me, “Miss Nariman, why didn’t you ask me to be a tutor?” I apologized and said we’d be honored to have her tutor. Her face brightened into a smile. I saw I had mistakenly assumed that Maylin’s goal was to zoom ahead when actually, she badly wanted an opportunity to help others succeed.
This desire to be of service is what I find most compelling about the peer tutoring program: the students aren’t paid, and they don’t get any flashy awards. We do give them recognition at graduation for their service, but that’s not why they do it. They do it because they want to make a difference in the lives of their classmates.
And they do. Last year when we started the peer tutoring program, our tutoring attendance dramatically increased. That, combined with our teachers’ great efforts, led to an 8-point increase in our graduation rate from the previous year.
Peer tutoring isn’t new in our school. For the first three years of our school’s existence, we actually paid students to be tutors over the summer. The summer tutoring program worked well, but in hindsight, students would have done the tutoring without pay. They wanted to help their classmates. The real pay was the opportunity to be of service.
It’s easy to focus on test scores and teaching kids to “get ahead.” It occurs to me, though, that if being of service were our underlying mantra, our academic success would explode. Behavior problems would decrease. Kids would have a greater sense of purpose.
Being of service saves students from themselves, from the emotional perils of being a teenager. Rather than having to focus on themselves– what they’re wearing, what someone is saying about them, how someone is looking at them, or whether they themselves are succeeding or failing– they have the gift of being able to take the attention off themselves and support those around them.
It occurs to me that in my school, we’ve given service opportunities to those who are succeeding but not to those who are struggling, perhaps seeing it as too much to handle. However, opportunities to be of service might give struggling students a sense of capability that would transfer to their academics. Allowing them to serve would give them a glimpse of their own greatness, and this could translate into exponential growth. Like Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
The names and identities of students have been changed.