Many church leaders have found that working with schools offers them a robust way of engaging with their communities. Local schools offer a window into the community like no other. This dynamic reflects the reality that community issues and problems always manifest significant impact in the local schools. Addictions, economic disadvantage, family breakdown or crisis, all impact the kids affected by these problems. Poor performance, truancy, even health issues among students can often be linked to circumstances and situations the students face outside of school time and off school property. They place these children at-risk educationally. Working with them can provide a quick education for those who enter their world. “I had no idea what these kids face,” is a frequent comment uttered by those who become involved with schools.
Working with schools, then, can be a strategic approach that alters the trajectory of a life and has impact on succeeding generations. Engagement in this venue serves as a major contribution toward the health of a community.
Here are six fundamental guidelines for working with schools that faith leaders need to understand and practice:
1. Put yourself in their shoes.
In your planning, get on their side of the table, think about things from their perspective. Approaching them with a “plan” is exactly the wrong way to go. Get their input from the get-go. Your proposed presence can be disruptive and add to an already-overfilled plate; after all, volunteers must be worked into the school schedule and managed in the classroom by school personnel. And your well-meaning “we’re here to help” can be heard as “we’re here to rescue the kids you are failing” or some similar message. Think through your approach, your messaging, your offer from the school’s point-of-view. Better yet, get their point-of-view by the earliest possible connection with them before you go far into your planning.
2. Do what (and only what) they ask.
It’s important to earn trust by responding to their perceived need than to position yourself as someone who knows more than they do about what needs to be done! If they ask for less than you can deliver, just relax in the knowledge that as you prove yourself trustworthy and reliable you will be able to expand your contribution. And, if you can’t do what they request, be honest and upfront about it; maybe then offer something you have been thinking about.
3. Don’t OVER PROMISE.
Don’t be so over-eager to impress and to help that you get ahead of yourself in what you pledge to do – either in terms of activity or results you can deliver.
4. Understand their skepticism (if they demonstrate some).
Schools have been promised a bunch of things by a bunch of people, only to be let down. Sometimes the guilty parties are faith-based entities or efforts that didn’t follow through with their commitment. Depending on your situation, there might be a backlog of mismanaged expectations or downright failure to deliver. If this is the case, you will need to understand why school officials might be skeptical. Be patient – and dependable! Trust takes time to build.
5. Respect/Follow their rules.
All schools have them. We prove ourselves to be good partners when we honor their requests. After all, we are guests in their culture. This principle applies to the issue of how/when we can talk about our faith.
6. Remember – relationship is the key!
Your engagement in the school system ultimately depends on the relationships that you build with school administrators, that your volunteers forge with classroom teachers, and above all, with the relationships established and nurtured with kids and their families. Keep this in mind in your recruiting and training of volunteers as well as in all your interactions with school personnel.
For more on this topic visit Good Cities’ podcasts and select podcast 009 — “Working with Schools”.