work effectively in schools

When you’re working in a school you’ll always be working with other people, whether it’s students, teachers, parents, or all of the above. We like to think that all partnerships are mutually beneficial- but this assumption is actually dangerous. Partnerships are mutually impactful, in that no matter what when two or more independent energies collide there will be some impact, and ideally it can be beneficial, but just as easily this impact can be harmful. It’s the responsibility of each individual partner to communicate, and then backup those words with reliable actions to ensure mutual benefit. Below are some important best practices for working effectively in schools.

Prepare Yourself

As a volunteer working on food education projects in schools, there’s no avoiding being perceived as an outsider. This perception has real implications- if students view you as an outsider coming into the school to ‘tell me what to eat’ you will be received with hostility and your impact will be negative. Traditional education follows a patriarchal, top-down approach- where the teacher has knowledge to pass down to students. With Math or English there’s no real argument- students can be angry and reject that 2 x 2 = 4 or that beautiful is spelled b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l, but eventually they will realize there’s little to be gained by arguing with these facts. But if students are angry and reject that an apple is a healthy snack option, they can never eat apples again in their life and other than missing valuable nutrition, won’t have much motivation to change that neglected behavior. The point is in food education, how the teaching happens is just as important as what is taught.

First it’s important to understand the foodways and culture of the folks you’re working with. Oftentimes volunteers working in schools come from a different race and/or class background, which has implications in terms of experiences, values, and perspectives. It’s recommended that all volunteers working in schools read Unequal Childhoods by Annette Laroux prior to working with kids.

Also, before any ‘teaching’ happens, get to know the folks you’ll be working with. If you’re working with kids in a schools, what’s their favorite subject? favorite thing to do after-school? favorite song? favorite foods? Working in Southwest Philly, I learned my middle-school boys loved Meek Mill, especially the song Dreams and Nightmares. After watching the music video I gained a new perspective on my students through understanding their role models. Moving forward our food education projects focused on entrepreneurialism, and how individuals and companies make money (or get taken advantage of) in the food marketplace.

A fun introductory activity for groups of all ages is designing your own food pyramid.

Introduce Yourself

Whether it’s with the principal, the ladies sitting at the front desk, or the cleaning folks taking out the trash- be sure to introduce yourself with a handshake and a smile, along with a brief explanation of what you’re doing. Leave an open door to collaboration and ongoing feedback. Just about everyone will want to be involved in creating a healthier school community.

Two things to remember when introducing yourself to young people (and anyone for that matter):

  1. Be Honest
  2. Ask Questions

Learning names is so important- it is the foundation of a relationship. A school can be both a tight knit community or a jumbled assortment of countless strangers. For a newcomer, walking into a school environment for the first time is a daunting experience. The truth is even the most experienced teachers and administrators don’t know the names of everyone in the building. Still, it’s important to try. Nobody remembers a name after the first introduction. Be open and honest if you need a reminder, no matter how many times it takes. A little awkwardness upfront far outweighs the alternative- shallow greetings in the hallways instead of a genuine and supportive relationship. A helpful hint to learn names quickly- consult the yearbook or class roster sheets that have photos- ┬áif they exist the school secretary will know about them.

Key Allies

Identifying these specific roles is not to minimize the important of the others, it’s just to point out their unique set of responsibilities that are particularly relevant to fostering successful Rebel Gardeners projects. Make an effort to frequently check in with these folks

  • Building Engineer (BE)- Access to water is just as essential to good food education as it is to life. The BE knows about water, about the pipes and the drains. Our ability to water our soil and wash our produce is dependent on this relationship. The BE also manages a staff who keep the building functional and clean. When projects focus on problems related to the school health environment, these are the folks you want on your side.
  • Secretary- Knowledge is power, and the school secretary knows everything. We give them each scissors along with a tour of the outdoor herb garden, with an invitation to snip some anytime. It’s a true win-win, the regular picking stimulates the plant’s growth and strengthens secretary’s immune system.
  • School Police, Nurse, Counselor- Just like with education, the best policing, nursing, and counseling is community-based. Food provides a foundation to building relationships. We train each of these folks in the basics of weeding and watering the garden and encourage them to engage the young people they work with in these activities.
  • Dean of Students (or curriculum coach, etc)- Even with the best laid plans, sometimes events occur outside of your control that require extra assistance to manage. These are the problems the dean knows how to solve. When young people apply to participate in a project, it’s always good to get the dean’s perspective on the potential participants.


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