Agency and Service – A Meaningful Start to the New School Year

Agency and Service – A Meaningful Start to the New School Year

Start the Year with Depth

Connect students to the greater good from the beginning.

In a recent episode of the podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the current United States Surgeon General, discussed ways to fight loneliness and bring people together. In the beginning of his career, he arrived at a new leadership post to a disconnected, siloed staff. That disconnection caused uncooperative subgroups and the intended mission of expanding access to healthcare went nowhere. To elevate the work he wanted his staff to accomplish, he knew he had to make changes…fast.  

Peers and Purpose

Since peers are important motivators at this age, let’s use it.

Meaningful connection with peers is an essential first step to building impactful classroom relationships, especially in middle school. What we do at the beginning of the year will determine the effectiveness of future collaborative work. Dr. Murthy found that while social gatherings weren’t effective connectors, service projects were. Similarly, working with others toward the greater good is often just what middle school students need to take them out of themselves and connect them to the wider community.  

Have students include a way to remember their work – short videos, art pieces, photos, etc. – to share with each other. Students can review what has been done in the past for ideas and to celebrate current work. The resulting ideas and excitement become gifts that keep on giving and motivate students to want to give to others. Doing this at the beginning of the school year sets the tone and establishes service to others as a lifelong habit.  

Include the “Why”

Students at this age need to understand why things matter to them.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink puts forward that the three motivators for people of all ages are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. One that stands out to me as a middle school educator is purpose – assuring our students that the work they do to serve others now will benefit them in multiple ways later. The more we frame this service as academic learning, social opportunity, and enjoyable life skills, the easier it is to get their buy-in.

Agency is Everything

Voice and choice is a pivotal strategy to quickly engage middle school students.

The quickest way to gain cooperation in service efforts is to ask students their opinions about a topic and authentically apply their responses. Brainstorm ideas with them and encourage service in ways that connect with things they love. A hands-on, personal connection is everything to short- and long-term success. Some ideas: 

  • Collect or distribute food (seasonally or weekly)
  • Reach out to local teachers for help with projects
  • Design afterschool clinics based on passions (making, inventing, writing, sports, coding)
  • Create art or greeting cards for hospice care, retirement homes, jails, etc. 
  • Collect towels for animal shelters

As middle school educators, we are here to share academic learning, foster social-emotional skills, and support students to become better people. In meeting the needs of others, our students address their own needs for significance and connection as well. That we help the world become a better place in the process is a bonus!

Tip- Use music to motivate groups. Get students’ opinions on what songs they’d like to hear (prescreening now can be very, very helpful and save you trouble later!) to support group engagement and connection.


Written by Linda Berger, consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools and co-author of Empowering Educators: A Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Grades 6, 7, 8