It is recruiting time again. Anyone who has been on a selection panel from year to year knows that the losses of last year’s team shapes the way we choose next year’s winning team. If your team lacked strong defenders in the vital games, or it had a solid team but no players who could penetrate the defense, you go looking for what you lack.
The same is true for us at Project CHANGE. Year to year, the selection is testimony to where we are and where we have been, and the pool of people who, at any one time, might be open to a year of service. What about 2022-23, the year we are trying to come out of the shadows of COVID? It is not going to be a normal year, so we need a team that rises above the normal.
Stressful times test us all, but they will sorely and surely test any AmeriCorps member choosing to serve this coming year. I can say that because of how much it seemed to test many members last year. We usually can presume people have natural coping skills, but when what they are coping with is not natural or normal, you have to reassess. The needs of the students we meet every day have changed so dramatically that finding the right kind of people to respond is going to call for something more.
Have you got that extra to give? If we are subject to the same constraints as the students are, none of us can be so sure that we are up for the task. That is the clear mandate from last year, that anyone wishing to serve cannot underestimate the toll it will most likely take. That is not to discourage people but to state it bluntly and boldly, that this is not your normal service year. Something more is called for because so much more is missing. Don’t blithely presume it will be easy. You are getting a modest living allowance, not a salary, and you are serving in schools short of teachers, and with battling non-profits who improvised to get through the pandemic. Don’t expect a red carpet and a band.
Second, how emotionally agile are you? While the teachers are intent on scores and reading levels and geared up to deliver the curriculum, AmeriCorps members are there as guardians of the Social and Emotional Learning of all students, but especially the most troubled and troublesome. Let me say that again. Trouble is our friend. Our unique approach, MyScore, invites students to assess themselves, and tell us how they feel they are coping. It is not top down but bottom up. But beware. If the whole system has bent and broken under COVID, and is battered every other day with police beatings and school shootings and classroom fights and student mental meltdowns, then we are not dealing with anything that one exam or extra study is likely to fix. Schools alone cannot fix what a pandemic has wrought.
A year of service will tax our own emotional and social maturity to the max. As we have discovered this past year, MyScore showed how much the students struggled but half way through, we decided that their teachers were struggling even more. We are not going to pick anyone for the role if we fear they are going to end up a casualty. It is like the story that life savers tell their trainees, get close but not too close to the desperate drowning man in case his struggle drags you under too.
Third, will you keep showing up regardless? The intermittent pattern of schooling, where infection rates still threatened shutdowns and teacher absence reflected student absence, the whole stop and start of education has made students suspicious of time, and unable to imagine too far into a future. All during the pandemic, they have lost out and have asked, who is there for us when no one else is, who will show up, rain and snow, hot or cold, bad days and good days? Funa is serving his third year and has coached his 3 new members at Sligo to not just show up on time but to show up early, and the students have noticed. They have said that even more than some teachers, the AmeriCorps members are always there. That in itself is testimony of a human commitment that all healthy SEL growth relies on. If you fear that this kind of commitment is too much given your busy life, or how far away you live, or your own prior obligations to kids or parents, then please, reconsider. For the time you are serving, those kids are number one priority and number two and number three. If they do not see that, they read between the lines. They know we say we care but we show we don’t.
Fourth, Are are committed to open and timely communication? Things happen. Parents get sick. Cars get towed. There is always something that is going to be the challenge of the day or week, but how good are you at letting the right people know, and at the right time? This past year, we have had members who just disappear for days at a time, and we have to send out search parties. As well as feeding our own anxieties, because we want to know, are they OK, did something happen. We hear four days later that a child was sick or a relative died. There is always a good reason, but running a program is hard enough without having to be a mind reader. The program perhaps is old fashioned and relies on emails over phone or text message, but if you are the sort of person with a clogged email inbox with 300 unopened messages, then that will get in the way of being a successful Project CHANGE member.
Who will you take your frustrations out on? It will get frustrating. The students are back but mostly not to learn. They are back to play. They missed out on so much. Or the AmeriCorps rules prohibit certain political activity and its an election year and the nation is falling apart, and you expect us to just sit back and do nothing. AmeriCorps Lives matter too. Yes, be a citizen and act, protest but that is not your job at AmeriCorps. Or those pesky Time Sheets, you are one month behind, then two, then three and the Director is chasing you to get them filled in. Can’t he see how hard I am working?
Unless we know you have healthy ways to deal with anxiety and frustration, and can switch off, take the dog for a walk, play tennis, grow petunias, your stress has to be dissolved and dealt with outside the system, not disposed of with rants or unrealistic demands inside the system. We are on the same side, but tension will get to all of us and wear us all out. I have to be sure I do not take it out on you, and you do not take it out on me. I love what some call Rule Number 6 which is “Never to take yourself too f….g seriously.” There is no Rule 1 or 5, in fact there are no other rules. Just Rule Number 6. How serious is that?
Are you doing this to get somewhere beyond this? This is hardly a year you use to kill time or because you have nothing better to do. This is one year you decide to serve, and at the end of it, we want to be sure it was not wasted. You have given so much, but it must enhance you and move you one chapter forward in your book of life. Expectations are crucial. Some very qualified members begrudge that their true talents are not utilized, but that is not why we signed you on. The essential qualification that defines the work is having a servants heart. Everything else is secondary. That is the core qualification we need you to have.
The final question is- Are you going to ensure you have some fun and enjoy the whole adventure? If you are doing this to be a martyr or a saint, then perhaps its not a good fit. The needs of the students come first and if we get into that victim mind, where we feel no one understands the size of our problems, then we misread the AmeriCorps script of getting things done for others and for America. If we get righteous or holier than thou, we do no one any favors. We are there for students needs, not ours.
But more than that, the successful member commits to an adventure, like trekking the Alps or summiting Everest, to climb and find new vistas and to be exhausted and lost, and all the rest, and see all that as part of the deal. If you are not going to have fun, to savor the chance, then we would ask you why torture yourself. Do this as your gift, not your duty. Someone once said “Joy is the infallible sign of grace.” If this is not the offer of joy, don’t do it. This is not ice cream or roller coaster joy. It is no ordinary feeling. It is the grace that comes from being there for others when no one else is, for believing in the kid who does not believe in herself, for cheering the failing efforts of a student everyone has labeled a loser, or calming a refugee who is beyond frustration with learning a new language in a new country. It is about the joy you only receive from serving. Is that you?
Recruiting Season is upon us. AmeriCorps might be calling you soon.