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Beginning teachers and service-learning: lessons learned.


This article presents the results of a case study of a beginning special education teacher as she implemented service-learning methods in her classroom. As a part of the case study, teacher education faculty assisted and supported the beginning teacher as she taught a service-learning instructional unit to her students. Results from graduate surveys were analyzed in relationship to the results of the case study. This article (1) documents and identifies the process of implementing service- learning methods in beginning teachers' classrooms (2) documents and identifies the challenges faced by beginning teachers (3) discusses recommendations for effective practices in teaching service-learning methods to preservice candidates.


Service-learning is an important component of teacher preparation in the California State University, Chico (CSU, Chico), Concurrent Teacher Preparation Program. In 1995, the Concurrent Program faculty developed an organized continuum of experiences that prepared candidates earning both general and special education credentials with a foundation in service-learning (Davis & Bianchi, 1998). During three semesters of program coursework and field experience, candidates participate in an articulated scope and sequence of service learning experiences and develop core knowledge about the importance of service learning as a teaching strategy. As a capstone experience during student teaching, candidates implement an integrated content standards-based instructional unit that they have written. Specific community and pupil needs are fundamental to the service component of their units.

The Concurrent Program faculty has increased its commitment to improving the service-learning component in the program by analyzing how effectively they equip graduates to use service-learning in their future classrooms. In the current climate of high stakes testing, standards-driven decisions, and budget cuts, teacher preparation programs need to provide specific examples of ways in which service-learning can be utilized effectively (Callahan, Davis & Hill, 2001; Ryan & Callahan, 1999). Colleges of education and teacher preparation, "have a unique opportunity to be at the cutting edge of school improvement efforts by preparing their students to effectively facilitate the service-learning process" (Meyers, 1995, p. 8).

The program faculty's commitment to increasing the number of pupils who would benefit from service-learning experiences in public school classrooms resulted in the implementation of a two-pronged approach to studying the problem. First, a survey was administered that provided information regarding the extent to which graduates transferred their knowledge and experiences with service-learning from their preservice preparation to classroom practice. Results of the survey provided important data regarding the supports needed by beginning teachers to implement service-learning and the barriers that prevented them from using service-learning during their first years of teaching. Secondly, faculty designed a case study that provided in depth involvement and data collection with one program graduate as she implemented service-learning during her first year of teaching.

The case study subject was a beginning teacher working in a rural elementary classroom for special education pupils identified with emotional/behavioral disorders and learning disabilities. The class consisted of eight pupils ranging from first to fourth grade. Faculty gathered data for this study from the beginning teacher's journal, interviews, and direct involvement in her classroom on a weekly basis throughout the school year. As faculty compared the results from the graduate survey to her individual experiences, they were not only able to confirm the parallel between the two sets of data, but also were able to more deeply understand the complexity involved in how and why a new teacher makes curricular decisions that involve the use of service-learning. The one-year case study yielded valuable insights into the complicated nature of a first year teacher's experience in service-learning. From these results, faculty has drawn conclusions and recommendations for the integration of service-learning in teacher preparation.

Effectiveness of Service-Learning in General and Special Education

Service-learning is a researched-based strategy that engages students in meaningful service activities connected to academic content and provides opportunities for thoughtful reflection (ASLER Standards, 1995). Many educators have confirmed the benefits of service-learning for pupils in K-12 settings including the fostering of problem-based learning, interpersonal and critical thinking skills and the attainment of attitudes required for civic-mindedness and social tolerance (California State Department of Education, 1999; Billig, 2000; Rutter, & Newmann, 1993).

With its emphasis on meaningful learning in authentic settings, service-learning is an effective teaching strategy for pupils who are diagnosed with emotional disorders. Teachers need to design motivating lesson plans for this population and provide them with an educational environment that fosters opportunities to learn and practice social skills (Hallahan & Kaufman, 2000; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). For at-risk pupils, service-learning promotes the use of contextual activities conducive to the development of intrapersonal intelligence and self-reflection (Kraft & Billig, 1997). Kraft and Billig also note that a primary goal in using service-learning with at-risk pupils is to increase the accessibility of academic content, a critical goal for teachers implementing service-learning in the current climate of standards-based instruction.

Statement of the Problem

Using a case study methodology and a program graduate survey, faculty documented beginning teachers' implementation of service-learning. With the dual goals of improving preservice pedagogy in service-learning and preparing students to be successful in their implementation of service-learning as novice teachers, the faculty used the following questions as guidelines for the study:

* What are the challenges faced by a novice teacher when bringing service-learning into the curriculum?

* What supports are the most helpful in this process and why?

* In what ways will the data collected from the case study project enhance the faculty's understanding of the results of the graduate survey?

Case Study Description

The purpose of the case study was to chronicle a beginning teacher's use of service-learning and the supports and assistance she needed to implement this teaching strategy. The goal was to learn more about the day-to-day decision-making and practice of a new teacher and how these activities affect a beginning teacher's ability to engage pupils in service-learning. The beginning teacher selected for the case study began the Concurrent Program with a foundation in service-learning practice. She completed special education coursework that included study of the elements of service-learning and wrote and taught a content standards-based instructional unit with a service-learning component under the guidance of a cooperating teacher experienced in service-learning. The outcome for this beginning teacher was positive, and she expressed a commitment to use service-learning in her future classroom.

The beginning teacher agreed to keep a journal, to be interviewed by faculty during the school year, and to present her project to a university class. Faculty designed this qualitative, interpretive case study to obtain information about the challenges she faced, her decisions, and the supports needed to implement service-learning. Two faculty mentors from the teacher preparation program were available for support and weekly contact with her during the school year (August 2001 to June 2002). The beginning teacher expressed the importance of this mentored support, "Having a mentor experienced in service-learning was one of the most important resources for helping me use service-learning with my students." The first challenge for the beginning teacher was gaining support for her plans to bring service-learning into her curriculum from the site administrator, parents, and other teachers at the site. The beginning teacher addressed this need for support by consulting with her faculty mentors. She met with her principal to explain the potential benefits of using service-learning and introduced the project to parents at Back-to-School-Night. She was especially concerned about gaining the support of the site administrator and wrote in her journal, "I'm new and have not had much experience approaching superiors."

Matching the curriculum to the special education pupils' academic and behavioral goals was a daunting task for the beginning teacher. She understood the need to align the service-learning project curriculum to content standards and to special education objectives, but found this alignment to be complex and time-consuming. With resources provided by one of the faculty mentors, she chose a science theme with an emphasis on language arts and science content standards. Even with this support, the new teacher struggled to find time to plan a unit with a meaningful service component. She wrote," It's challenging for special education teachers to plan for multiple grades and abilities. It's time consuming enough just to try to keep up with the everyday responsibilities of teaching." The beginning teacher was also concerned about how the children would respond to the faculty mentor's weekly visits to her classroom. "Will my pupils respond well to someone else? Will the change in their routine spark undesirable behaviors?" By the middle of the school year, her concerns about undesirable behavior subsided. In contrast to the frustration they typically expressed with each other, pupils engaged in service-learning experiences in a positive manner with their classmates and other adults. The teacher noted, "They [my students] thanked each other for the part they played ... they began to appreciate each other's strengths."

At the end of the school year, the pupils presented their science projects (honey bees study) to the general education pupils through hands-on activities and Power Point presentations. The pupils were initially reluctant, but grew enthusiastic about sharing their service projects. As a result of their service, both the pupils and the teacher forged new connections to the school and the community. She stated, "The kids' presentations went so well, the other teachers wanted us to come into their rooms! They were willing to rearrange their schedules and they spread the word about how great the kids were. I felt like I got to know the teachers better and our collaboration increased." She shared how she and her class became more integrated in their school and community, "They [my students] talked about how other kids recognized them on the playground, Making comments like,' you're the guy who wore the bee mask.'" This change was significant for the pupils who had previously experienced social isolation.

Reflecting with faculty mentors about her first year in the classroom and experiences with service-learning, the beginning teacher expressed a mixture of satisfaction and frustration. As much as she valued the growth in her pupils' self-esteem, motivation to learn, and ability to recall information, the beginning teacher felt that the time required to plan and implement service-learning was a significant deterrent to its continued practice. "Being a beginning teacher I need some things structured and in place. The service-learning experience was wonderful for the students' self-esteem and I loved the way the activities motivated them and helped them retain information. I just wish I had more time to plan new activities."

Summary of Significant Graduate Study Results

Faculty surveyed 48 Concurrent Program graduates using the Program Graduate Service-Learning Survey (Wade et al, 1999). Graduates had been teaching from between 1-5 years in both general and special education classrooms, grades K-12, with 79% responding that they are special education teachers and 21% responding that they are general education teachers. All graduates had been provided with foundational service-learning curriculum and theory and had participated in a service-learning project during preservice preparation. Results of this survey indicated that there are many complex circumstances that determine whether a beginning teacher will be successful in implementing service-learning.

Specific responses to the survey indicated that support systems for beginning teachers who are interested in using service-learning with their students are limited. Respondents were asked to determine if specific on-site support systems in service-learning were available. Only 11% of the respondents indicated that their school had a service-learning coordinator, while 15% indicated that their school provided funds for service-learning. Only 27% of the respondents knew of teachers who were implementing service-learning and 17% considered the on-site administrator as being supportive of service-learning methodology.

The most prevalent factor cited by respondents for not using service-learning was the amount of daily responsibilities they encountered as beginning teachers. 71% of the teachers stated that they were too busy and overwhelmed with other responsibilities to participate in service-learning activities. Approximately 48% cited that they had a shortage of time for planning service-learning and had a hard time finding room in their school day to incorporate this method. It is important to note that despite the barriers to practicing service-learning, 30% of the beginning teachers responded that they had implemented service-learning methods and 100% of the respondents indicated that they perceive service-learning as being valuable for their students.


Both case study and survey results indicate beginning teachers who had previous exposure to the theory and practice of service leaning viewed it as a method that is beneficial to their students. However, the results from both sets of data indicate that a majority of beginning teachers believes they are too busy and overwhelmed with everyday responsibilities to participate in service-learning. The case study beginning teacher determined that an on-site mentor was seen as a critical element for her successful implementation of service-learning. Upon reflection, faculty mentors noted that the beginning teacher's commitment and passion for service-learning as a teaching and learning method was an essential factor in the success of her project.

The case study and survey results underscore the major barriers to beginning teachers using service-learning. Teachers entering the field are faced with multiple demands on their ability to accommodate to a new school culture, juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, and address academic accountability and pupil achievement. Incorporating service-learning methods into an already demanding schedule becomes an overwhelming task of managing time and prioritizing responsibilities related to their everyday survival and professional development. The results of these studies make it apparent that teacher preparation programs committed to the practice of servicelearning must address the following pedagogical challenges: In what ways can teacher preparation programs provide support to beginning teachers for the practice of service-learning? How can the pedagogy of service-learning be taught in preservice programs so that program graduates will engage in service-learning successfully during their first years of teaching and beyond?


In light of these challenges, teacher preparation programs must address how they can prepare teachers to enter into a workforce void of significant support systems for continuing the practice of service-learning. The critical issues of lack of time for instructional planning and need to incorporate standard-based curriculum into busy schedules can be addressed by providing preservice students with the following resources:

* Examples of standards-based curriculum that integrate service-learning methods at a variety of grade levels

* A directory of individuals and community resources supportive of service-learning.

* University supported informational meetings for local school administrators and teachers on the instructional value of service-learning methods and how service-learning benefits both pupils and the community.

* A directory of trained mentors who are knowledgeable in implementing service-learning strategies in public school classrooms.

* A model of how to begin service-learning projects in manageable, incremental steps

Lessons Learned: The Next Steps

In response to these recommendations, the Concurrent Program faculty is organizing a directory of the content standards-based units with service-learning projects that have been created by program graduates. The online directory will become available on the CSU, Chico website ( and complete academic service-learning units will be available on CD-ROM. In response to the need for more time in the first year of teaching for project planning, candidates in the curriculum and instruction courses are designing and field testing content standards-based service learning activities that they can modify and use in their first years of teaching.

Faculty members along with teacher candidates and local program graduates will be compiling a detailed handbook that identifies local community partners. These resource handbooks can be used by preservice teachers during student teaching as well as by beginning teachers in the local area.

To address the new teacher and survey respondents' comments about the need for site administrator and peer support, the faculty is planning a service-learning informational meeting and materials for administrators. Program graduates using service-learning in their classrooms will be encouraged to participate by co-leading this training with university faculty. Their participation is viewed as a means of providing an authentic view of service-learning in a beginning teacher's classroom and as a way to promote leadership and professional development skills in our graduating teachers. Service-learning mentors are now being generated from several program graduates who have been successfully using service-learning during their first years of teaching. These alumni teachers will provide the region with mentors who share a passion for service-learning and empathy for the challenges faced by beginning teachers.

Most significantly, faculty have begun to develop a model of service-learning for beginning teachers that accommodates for the developmental stages of learning that teachers experience in their first years of teaching. The dramatic percentage of beginning teachers who indicated that they were overwhelmed with the expectations of being an effective teacher gives rise to the immediate need for teacher preparation programs to leave their graduates with a realistic vision of how they can successfully implement service-learning. Without this developmental model, we fear enthusiastic and talented beginning teachers, like our case study teacher, will abandon their hopes to use this important instructional strategy.


Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform--ASLER (1995). Standards of Quality for School-Based and Community-Based Service-Learning. Alexandria, VA: Close Up Foundation.

Billig, S. (2000). Research on K-12 school-based service-learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 81 (9), 658-665.

California State Department of Education (CDE) (1999). Service-learning; Linking Classrooms and communities: The report of the Superintendent's Service-Learning Task Force. Sacramento, CA: CDE.

Callahan, J. P., Davis, T., and Hill, D. (2001). Teaching the pedagogy of service-learning. In J. Anderson, K. Swick, and J. Yff (Eds.), Service-Learning in Teacher Education. Wash. DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and ERIC.

Davis, T. & Bianchi, A. (1998). The service-learning integrated partnership handbook. Washington, DC: American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education.

Hallahan, D., & Kauffman, J. (2000). Exceptional Learners: Introduction to special Education. MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Myers, C. (1995). Integrating service-learning into teacher education: Why and how? Washington DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Rutter, R., & Newmann, F. (1993). The effects of high school community service programs on students' social development. Final Report, EDRS: ED 240043/PC05.

Ryan, L. and Callahan, J. (Winter 1999). Service learning competencies for beginning teachers. Academic Exchange Quarterly,

Wade, R., Anderson, J., Erickson, J., Kromer, T., Pickeral, T., & Yarborough, D. (1999). Novice teachers' experiences in community service-learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15, 667-684.

Walker, H., Colvin, G., & Ramsey, E. (1995). Antisocial behavior in schools: Strategies and best practices. Pacific Grove, CA:Brooks/Cole.

Michelle Ray Cepello, California State University, Chico

Teresa M. Davis, California State University, Chico

Laurel Hill-Ward, California State University, Chico

Cepello, Ed.D., Director of CSU, Chico Special Education Intern Program, is researching service-learning methods and special education. Davis, Ph.D., Director of CSU, Chico Special Education Programs, was a finalist for the 2002 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-learning. Hill-Ward, M.A., Lecturer, has experience with service-learning in special education alternative education.
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Author:Hill-Ward, Laurel
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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