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To serve, to teach, to lead

I joined a service program after college despite planning to leave education after two years. I joined because I knew I needed to serve my country in a direct way. If I hadn't joined, the classroom I taught in would have been led for another year by a long-term substitute. Without the opportunity to "try out" teaching in a supportive program, I would never have considered education as a field I would anchor my career in. My experience is nothing special. My partner, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, is earning his doctorate in international development. My former postman, a retired Marine, continues to serve disabled vets. A former teacher left education to attend medical school. But his time as a teacher in the Rio Grande Valley drove his decision to specialize in US-Mexican border health care.

I believe in service. But I don't believe in herding people en masse. I don't believe in the mandatory service promoted in Daily Kos's posting last week. The writer, Larry Sabato, explained a plan to make 2-year service mandatory for people between 18-26 years old. This could include military service as well as Peace Corps, Americorps and non-profit organizations like Teach For America.

What I do believe in is promoting national service to a Cabinet-level department, as fleshed out in Time magazine's article on national service back in September. I also believe in Time's proposal for a $5,000 bond to go toward education/housing for volunteers who complete their service commitment. I believe in expecting two years of service and including the first two-years of career public servants like police officers and teachers in the bond program.

But most of all, I believe in each service program making it their responsibility to not only train their members to teach phonics, build levees or use an M-16; I believe in each program have a strategic plan on how they will develop each member to become a leader in society. We need to be taught skills on how to evaluate our own effectiveness, how to influence and motivate others, how to initiate and effect change. All too often, service programs are seen only as opportunities to give back to the community, build grassroots experience or pay back loans. They're also seen as ways to "delay" reality and create "work" when you don't get into your choice of graduate schools. Rarely are they seen as a chance to have personalized professional development in leadership. That is how service programs (and schools) need to compete with law schools and investment banking offers. This is where we can start partnering with especially effective service programs, business schools and banks to understand how they develop large numbers of people into leaders. This is where we need to cultivate the new generation of leaders, whether they are leaders in classrooms, emergency rooms or boardrooms.

You can learn more about Sabato's addendums to the Constitution in his new book and Web site, A More Perfect Constitution.

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