The nature of community educators

A look at 4-H volunteers as non-formal teachers and their role in community youth development.

4-H is the largest youth development organization in Michigan. Because 4-H is an out-of-school program, it relies heavily on community-based volunteers to engage youth in experiential learning and life skill development. 4-H volunteers are passionate, healthy, adult role models. While they might not self-identify as such, they are community educators.

Rafe Esquith, winner of the American Teacher Award and author of “There Are No Shortcuts,” states, “I knew the most important thing in teaching and parenting (and life) is to know who you are… I just knew that I could never be a good teacher without defining myself – a sort of personal mission statement.”

The definition of education is growing from specific skill development, stretching to a holistic version of personal growth. 4-H is a program that utilizes project lenses to non-formally develop youth cross-disciplinary skills, such as setting goals, conflict resolution, facilitation and active communications. As community educators working with 4-H youth, we must critically identify our self-knowledge and work on the continuous journey of self-improvement through reflection. 

Good teachers, both formal and informal, work to identify what they know about themselves and the world in which they operate. This worldview shapes how we make meaning of information and experiences, thus influencing how we prioritize and share lessons with our youth learners. Good community educators are those that never discount the opportunity to learn more. Lifelong learning helps develop critically thinking members of a community and is important to prioritize in any field or project area. As community educators, we are the purveyors of information, so it is especially important to continue an active pursuit of learning and growth for ourselves. In this, we model the tools and methods inherent in lifelong learning for the youth in our communities to emulate and adopt.

As a community educator, take to heart educational philosopher Nel Noddings’ recommendation to “rediscover discovery and do something both effective and joyful with it. Use your imagination, explore and evaluate the success of your efforts.” Know that we can never be an expert in the entirety of knowledge, experience and culture involved in our passions, and thus our opportunities for learning are endless. Success comes when our passion for learning ignite a renewed interest in learning for youth who participate in our programs; when we reframe learning from boring classroom lectures to hands-on experiential application of skills and knowledge. That is what 4-H accomplishes, which makes it so special.

Having “vision” stems from our worldview and shapes our actions as the way we define, develop and transition to our ideal future. Leadership in our communities depends on visionary individuals with a clear sense of their personal and professional values while dreaming a future from a collection of those values along with facts, hopes and opportunities. Isn’t this what we want for our youth, to have the skills, knowledge and positive sense of self-worth to dream a better future and then pursue it? The leadership development nature of 4-H helps youth cultivate their skills, encourages them to invest in themselves, connects them with powerful change-makers in their communities, and empowers them to step up as leaders of today rather than tomorrow.

More than 20,000 volunteers, or community educators, donate their time, knowledge and skills to support 4-Hers across the state. From teaching a session at camp to leading a community club, chaperoning an event or being a county project expert, 4-H wouldn’t be the successful organization it is today without volunteers. Take some time to thank your local 4-H volunteers and consider sharing your talents as a volunteer 4-H community educator!

For more information on becoming a volunteer, visit the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development Volunteer webpage.

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