Possible Problem Situations

Below are some of the problem situations we hear most often, with some suggested responses.

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What if only a small number of students in my class choose service learning?

This may well be the case, especially as you begin to experiment with service learning. Some faculty think they must hold separate sessions with their few service learners in order to not monopolize the time of the traditional learners in class. Instead, why not use the service learners as extra resources in class? Ask them how theories play out in the real world; how people affected by or working with issues view them, compared with the authors of textbooks and articles; how literature is based in real life (or not); how it is to communicate with people whose lives are so different from yours. If you want to communicate directly with your service learners, set up an e-mail conversation as described above. You probably wouldn't want to set aside special "reflection days" in a class where there are only a few people working in the community. Instead, try to weave the information from the community into the body of the course.

[Note: If you are dissatisfied with the number of students who choose service learning, next time check to make sure there is a perceived equality between assignments for service learners and traditional learners. Also, be encouraging and enthusiastic when presenting the service option. Tell students how you think they'll benefit from a community-based learning experience.]

What if some of my students have problems with their placements (late getting started, can't reach the site coordinator, inappropriate assignments, etc.)?

Often the hardest part is getting students to recognize and report that a problem exists. As soon as you become aware of a problem, please make sure the Service Learning office is notified immediately. The sooner we hear, the more likely it will be that we can help your student find a solution quickly.

What if students say things in their journals or in class that I think reveal an inappropriate conclusion?

Occasionally students will show an insensitivity (Q: "What was the most important thing you learned from your service learning experience?" A: "That homeless people don't have it so bad.") or demonstrate that a stereotype has actually been reinforced ("Poor people don't care about their children," or "Welfare mothers just don't want to work.") from their contact with the community. These stereotypical comments must be addressed in some fashion to help students look beyond and beneath the obvious to get at the root causes of social problems. Without this processing, there is the potential for community experiences to do more harm than good. A helpful resource for handling these issues is a book by Helen Fox entitled, When Race Breaks Out: Conversations about Race and Racism in College Classrooms (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004).

How do I handle discouragement and disappointment in service learners?

Students often embark on community service experiences--especially their first--with a combination of fear and anticipation of a great "happening." They expect either to have a lot of fun or to make a significant impact--or both. The fear is usually dissipated after a couple of site visits. The same can't always be said for great expectations. Sometimes working in the community is fun; more often it's sad, discouraging, overwhelming. The people are often leading tragic lives; the problems are numerous and complex, not lending themselves to quick fixes. You may be the one to help students put their service work in perspective--to learn and grow and seek answers even when they won't be able to make it happen themselves. I think the most valuable experiences occur when students are brought from applying band-aids in the community to looking at how they can be future agents for change in the system itself.

What if one of my students has a traumatic incident while working in the community?

Student safety is of great concern to all service learning programs. While most incidents are more harassment than serious threat, any and all such events must be dealt with immediately. Instruct your students to report any incidents to you, to the Service Learning office, and to the site. If it's not possible to work out a better arrangement with the agency, the student may have to switch to another placement. Occasionally a student will have an unusually strong revulsion to a site, not because of any danger, but due to her/his own particular reaction. If you encounter this in the classroom, you may want to help the student process her reaction with the class or with you individually. Perhaps she will be able to return with a new outlook. If you think this isn't possible, or if this kind of student advising is beyond what you feel you can do, you may need to offer her the choice of another placement or the alternate assignment.

What else do I have to cover with service learners?

Confidentiality: Students aren't always aware that they have to protect the names of the people they are reporting about--both in journals and in class. Ask them to alter names, and in some cases identifying details, before reporting. This will be especially important if they are to turn a copy of their papers in to the agencies (which a number of agencies are now requesting).

Closure: Remind students that the people they've come to know--whether staff or clients at the agency--will feel a loss when they leave. It's the student's responsibility to inform these folks that they won't be back (unless they intend to stay on as volunteers) and express gratitude for the help they've been given. This is particularly true for students who are working with central city children, many of whom have had to cope with frequent losses in their young lives. Our service learners can be taught to look at the relationship from the client's perspective and to bring closure to the experience with grace.