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Nina Vasan Headshot

Teaching Students to Do Good Well

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K-12 is a pivotal time in a child's life. During these years, students become increasingly aware that the world in which they live is a far cry from that portrayed in their favorite fairy tales. Whether at home, in school, or on the playground, children begin piecing together the discrepancies between the way that things should be, and the way that things are. However, these years are also marked by a host of exceptionally hopeful, unique attributes: the world, despite its flaws, still possesses an almost limitless potential, imagination and creativity are at their peaks, and children are positively bubbling over with idealism and the drive to do good.

How then, can we channel this drive to do good into action? And not just action, but effective action? How do we as a society teach our children to do good well?

We believe there is a critical need to incorporate the fundamentals of civic and community engagement into K-12 education. When a student walks across the stage at graduation, diploma in hand, there is no question she should be equipped with the life skills to read books that will challenge her worldview, to write messages that will connect her to others, and to calculate how much money she needs to save to be financially secure. But we are doing her a disservice if she does not also possess the knowledge and skills necessary to tackle the problems in the world around her, to work with others to produce real, lasting societal change. To seek to graduate students who will simply be productive members of society is to set the bar too low. Instead, we must strive to graduate students who will change the very fabric of society, to right its wrongs and bring about greater justice for all. We need to invest in the education of leaders.

But how do we do this on a practical level? How do we teach students to not only do good, but to do good well, as there is all too often a disconnect between good intentions and good outcomes? It is not enough to exhort students to do good deeds, which are all too often just temporary fixes -- we must show them how to engineer solutions. For this reason, we wrote Do Good Well: Your Guide to Leadership, Action, and Social Innovation, a book that teaches students how to think critically about the world around them in order to develop evidence-based, sustainable solutions grounded in teamwork and community partnerships. Our objective was to create a comprehensive and engaging reference for students that would be flexible enough to integrate into a host of curricula, yet simple enough to allow any student who picked it up to follow its progression and directly apply its lessons.

While books packed with content like Do Good Well lend themselves naturally to semester or even year-long courses on civic and community engagement, this may not be feasible in the K-12 setting, where budget cuts and performance standards limit the range of courses offered. However, we don't need entire courses devoted to the subject matter to begin inspiring students to do good well; all that's needed is a bit of resolve and a dash of creativity to find ways to work these critical life lessons into or around existing lesson plans: devoting one class period a semester to a particularly relevant aspect of leadership and community engagement (especially effective if an entire department agrees to coordinate such sessions among its teachers, addressing a different set of topics each year), offering extra credit to students who take part in service leaning projects, or partnering up with other educators or community organizations to facilitate after school leadership workshops for students. Extracurricular clubs are another phenomenal opportunity for instruction, as teachers and coaches who oversee these activities are at a prime vantage point to provide feedback to students, who often first exercise their leadership skills in such group and team settings.

However, even in the absence of any formal opportunities to instruct students in community engagement, educators remain an essential part of the equation. As respected authority figures and trusted sources of knowledge, educators possess a position of great influence in students' lives at a time when students are most inclined to dream big and confront injustices head-on. It is thus imperative that educators not only exude a genuine interest in these topics, but also be as prepared to answer questions about leadership and community action as they are to field questions about spelling and Newtonian mechanics. Particularly in secondary schools, where community service requirements are becoming increasingly common while dedicated courses on civic engagement and social innovation are rare, a trusted educator may be a student's only reference point for such questions. That's why at least one copy of a comprehensive reference like Do Good Well should be on a bookshelf in every classroom, within easy reach of educators who might incorporate it into lesson plans or consult it when advising students. The simple physical presence of such a book in a classroom can be enough to encourage an inquisitive student to flip through its pages and find inspiration, prompting a request to borrow the book. Moreover, as educators are often in the best position to identify youths who show an inclination for leadership or community service, or who could benefit from positive community engagement, encouraging such students to take home the class copy and look it over could prove remarkably instrumental in the course of their development as young adults.

It is absolutely in our best interest as a society to give the children of today the skills and knowledge they need to become the purposeful, thoughtful leaders of tomorrow, and we are doing the collective whole a great disservice if we continue to ignore the need for formal incorporation of leadership skills and community engagement into our educational systems. And though this long-term solution will ultimately require a larger societal decision to invest more resources in education and in the values and life skills we desire to cultivate in future generations, we can begin to implement these changes, to act on our values and to answer this societal call to action, one teacher at a time. The power of a single determined educator, armed only with a commitment to the cause and a willingness to serve as a resource for students, should not be underestimated. It only takes one educator to start a school discourse, one class period to inspire a room of students.

Such individual stands are invaluable to the children they directly benefit, and to the collective action they inspire, because while leadership and initiative may not be measured by any standardized test, they are as important to nurture in our children as intelligence and critical reasoning. Without them, our children will become adults incapable of applying even the greatest intelligence and critical reasoning skills toward meaningful societal change.

Jennifer Przybylo and Nina Vasan are co-authors of the new book "Do Good Well: Your Guide to Leadership, Action, and Social Innovation," which was praised by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus as "the primer for social innovation."