People often ask us about different pathways into the nonprofit sector. Volunteering and internships are great ways to get started, but a year of service can also be a fun way to learn about the sector and get your foot in the door. Here, Tim Johnson, director of the Denver Math Fellows program, shares some insights on how make the most of year of service in education. If you are interested in pursuing a year of service, check out their fellowship opportunity on Idealist.
Service opportunities in urban education, like the Denver Math Fellows program, are ideal for entry into the social sector because they present an opportunity to apply your efforts to a real world social problem. Programs involving a one-year commitment to working with and mentoring students in small groups are being developed in high-performing charters and in traditional public schools with the goal of delivering a quality education to every student regardless of their zip code. Whether you are primarily interested in policy, research or simply want to give a year of your life to be of service to others the experience will equip you with a unique skillset for entry into the social sector.
Effective communication is the foundation for relationship building and leveraging those relationships for student achievement in a small group setting. As a participant in an urban education service year you will gain experience on a diverse team and in an environment where every second counts. Developing a sense of urgency and communicating with purpose are skills you will form through repetition as you teach a student a difficult concept or present a best practice during professional development. Being in tune to individual needs and differentiating how you communicate to others is supported in a small group context and necessary for the social sector to drive results through networking and relationship building.
Asking for specific feedback
Soliciting feedback is a skill that is cultivated for personal and professional growth during a year of service. This can be uncomfortable but by participating in a program that values and normalizes feedback you will be primed for success in any field. Seek out those you respect and want to emulate and engage them in a specific challenge you are having. It may be that you are struggling to connect with a student or are concerned with your own ability to teach a difficult concept. Regardless of where you need to grow, one of the strongest assets you can develop in a year of service that will pay dividends in the social sector is a hunger for feedback and constant improvement. As you develop the skill of effectively communicating your needs you deepen your relationships with those around you and position yourself for constant improvement.
Cultivating a sense of purpose
As you complete your service year and investigate different nonprofit organizations look for a mission that aligns to your personal ideals. The most successful individuals who participate in urban education fellowships are driven by a larger sense of working toward equity while also being firmly rooted in the experience of the individual students they are teaching and mentoring. Cultivating a sense of purpose through an on-the-ground experience will inform the types of questions you ask in terms of policy or research, the kind of career you decide to pursue and ultimately the mission you align yourself with. Go for fit and transition into the social sector with confidence that you have the tools needed to succeed.
Tim currently serves as the director of the Denver Math Fellows program, an urban education fellowship in Denver Public Schools. He began a career in education through a service year at a high-performing charter school and has also worked as a teacher and assistant principal. To learn more about his work please visit Denver Math Fellows.