Service and Self-Efficacy

I recently had another post published on City Year’s internal IJ Blog! You need a City Year login to be able to view the original, so the full text is included below. Sorry that there is some City Year jargon in this essay! Here is a publicly accessible link to my previous essay published on the same City Year blog.

Service and Self-Efficacy

Near the mid-point of our year, I asked my team to make two lists: components of an ideal work environment (for us) and components of an ideal learning environment (for our students). Corps members made long lists in both categories. For example, for an ideal work environment, CMs [corps members] listed colleagues turning in work on time, doing things together outside of work, not distracting people who are working, having hour long lunch breaks, assuming good intent, asking if anyone needs support, and about 30 more items.  CMs did the same thing for an ideal learning environment, also generating a very long list.

Once everything was listed, we went back through each list and kept only the items that were actually within the power of the people in the room to realistically implement (the team, the TL [team leader], and the PM [program manager]). For example, we eliminated “hour long lunch break” since the school’s class schedule and our 50 Acts of Leadership Lunches make this impossible.

For items that remained, we organized the list and continue to refer back to it periodically during circles. Everyone privately selects an item to work on personally, and publicly selects an item for the group to work on.

This has been working very well—the team has been taking ownership over our own personal growth and over our own role in creating an ideal situation for ourselves and our students. People are surprised by how much of this is actually in our power!

However, what stands out to me about this activity is not the improvements that have already happened in the areas the group decided that we can control, but rather the volume of items the team eliminated from the list that they decided that they had no control over.

For an ideal learning environment for students, one of the items that had been voted down was “good teacher morale and positive attitude.” Certainly, corps members can’t directly control how the teachers feel about their work. However, I was disappointed that the team missed out on the pretty substantial indirect impact we can have on teacher morale, by being in the school, helping kids be personally and academically successful, and working to change the tone in the school—in fact, this is what City Year is designed to do!

People’s “self-efficacy” is the extent to which they personally believe they can accomplish something. There is psychological research that shows that a person’s lack of self-efficacy makes it less likely for them to actually accomplish their task. The CMs’ sense of self-efficacy didn’t include an ability to change the mindsets of those around them. There were also several other items eliminated as being out of our control that really shouldn’t have been. My fear is that this lack of self-efficacy actually prevents us from having the impact we aspire to have.

City Year’s very first PITW encourages us to “challenge cynicism—wherever [we] find it. […] Cynicism is the enemy of positive change because it discourages creative thinking—and destroys both the belief that change is possible and the will to act.” Challenging cynicism and developing one’s own sense of self-efficacy go hand in hand.

The conversation with my team indicated cynicism at several levels. The teachers’ (perceived) low morale indicates some cynicism on their part. The corps members’ belief that they had no power to impact the teachers’ morale indicates some cynicism on their part. At a deeper level, the teachers’ cynicism may be at least partially due to some cynicism on the part of their students: I’ve spoken with MANY students who think that school is just something that happens to them—they get in trouble, other kids bother them, they get scores and grades, etc. They have a very low sense of self-efficacy; they don’t realize that they have the ability to change anything around them or their own experience of school. City Year’s 50 Acts of Leadership, among other things, is designed to help them develop this skill: as they see the positive impact they can have on themselves and their environment, their level of self-efficacy increases, and they actually start to have more of a positive impact on themselves and their environment, continuing this cycle.

Seeing the positive outcomes of one’s work leads to an increased sense of self-efficacy and an increased sense of self-efficacy leads to more positive outcomes of one’s work.

A person’s own self-efficacy experiences peaks and valleys over time, certainly during the course of a year of a service! This is normal. However, one way to measure the success of a year of service (or a year of anything) is to look at the general trend in one’s own sense of self-efficacy. Do I perceive more self-efficacy at the end of the year than the beginning (in June, do I think I am able to get a larger amount of important work done than I thought I could have in August)? Does my team? Do the school staff? Most importantly, do the students?

Imagine placing yourself in a school in which the self-efficacy of students, teachers, and corps members is very low compared to a school in which it is very high. Where would you rather be? Where do you think the students would rather be? Working to increase self-efficacy probably isn’t sufficient to change the climate of a school on its own, but there is clearly value in developing a school-wide sense of self-efficacy, and an increase in self-efficacy usually signals that good things are happening in that environment. I’m skeptical of any apparent progress that isn’t accompanied by an increase in self-efficacy.

Having a clear vision for the future coupled with a powerful sense of self-efficacy and working to spread that to everyone around you has a name. It is called “idealism.” Within City Year, as we each venture forth on our own idealists’ journeys, be aware of your self-efficacy and the self-efficacy of others! I hope that by the end of the year, I’ll empower those around me to increase their own sense of self-efficacy.

If I ask my team at the end of the year to regenerate a list of components of an ideal work or learning environment, I hope they’ll eliminate fewer items as being out of our control. If I ask our partner teachers at the end of the year whether they feel they are able to positively impact the lives of their students and keep them on track to graduate successfully, I hope they’ll say “yes!” If I ask my students at the end of the year whether they feel like they have the ability to improve their grades, improve their relationships with peers and teachers, and positively impact the lives of those around them, I hope they’ll say “yes,” too! I hope the “BE” component of each person’s Flame of Idealism grows during the year to include a wider sense of self-efficacy! City Year can be a tool for developing this in everyone!​

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