Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Can you imagine a school without volunteers?
I can, but I don’t want to! Who would listen to the first graders read? Who would run the book fair? Who would alter the chorus uniforms? Who would organize the fundraisers, help the sixth graders find their next classes, and open the kindergarteners’ milk cartons?
Can you imagine a school where math homework papers are stacked a foot high on every teacher desk? Can you imagine library carts filled with returned books that no one has time to correctly shelve? Can you imagine the cancelled field trips?
Not a pretty sight, huh? That’s a school without volunteers.
The school personnel budget usually funds the essential workers, and gives them time to do essential tasks. But most parents and community members want a little extra, and they don’t mind donating some time to make those extras happen. That’s the premise behind school volunteerism. I’ve worked at schools with vibrant, supportive volunteer programs, and I’ve worked at schools with almost no volunteer effort. The differences are profound. Trust me.
Typically, new volunteers are given guidelines that form the basis of the school volunteer program. Be on time, and call when you can’t make it. Respect student confidentiality. Dress appropriately. Sign-in at the office, and wear your name-tag. All of these things are important if you want to be a good volunteer.
But teachers know that there’s another level of volunteerism out there. These are the solid gold, one-of-a-kind volunteers. They may help every day for several hours, or they may show-up at the school once or twice a year. But they possess qualities and characteristics that are especially valuable to the school. They are golden. They are the best volunteers.
In this post, I’ll try to describe the characteristics that I have observed in these special volunteers.
The best school volunteers do what needs to be done.
What do you need me to do? These words are precious to the teacher or school administrator. Sure, some volunteer-based tasks - such as organizing a fundraiser or maintaining the school web-site – are intellectual and complex. But most tasks are simple and menial. Think about some of the volunteer-based tasks at your school – grading spelling tests, signing-in tardy students, and sorting band uniforms. Those aren’t very glamorous tasks. On the job market, a similar job would pay only a few dollars an hour. But the best volunteers don’t see it that way. They jump in and help wherever they’re needed. They realize that even the most menial task contributes to the smooth functioning of the school. They come to the school to serve, and they understand that sometimes important tasks aren’t particularly attractive or fascinating.
The best school volunteers share their experience when it benefits instruction.
Sometimes, in our thankfulness for their volunteer work, we teachers forget that our school volunteers have a wealth of experience and education on a variety of topics. Perhaps a volunteer has visited, or even lived in a country that the geography class is studying. Or maybe the volunteer is a retired oceanographer who can contribute to the class’ unit on marine life. The list of examples is endless, and you get the idea. All too often we see that volunteer in our classroom as a blank slate, and that's far from true. Of course, given the humble nature of the best volunteers, we may have to pry that information out of them! Just don’t forget to ask your volunteers about their hobbies and interests, and invite them to contribute to your class at the appropriate times. Who knows? – that expert you need may be grading the math homework in you classroom!
The best school volunteers understand their time commitments.
Most volunteers would like to volunteer many hours at the school. But realistically, volunteers have other time commitments in their lives. The best volunteers understand those commitments, and they don’t over-extend themselves. Some people volunteer several hours a day, several days a week. (These volunteers are mistaken for full-time employees!) Of course, most volunteers work fewer hours. The important thing is to establish a schedule that’s comfortable for the volunteer.
Here are a couple of examples from my days as an elementary library media specialist. One of my library volunteers loved to work the book fairs, and I loved to have her help! After a couple of book fairs, it was apparent that she could actually handle the entire task herself. So each year she would clear her personal schedule for the week of the book fair, and work as a full-time volunteer. She didn’t volunteer in the library any other times – she volunteered in her granddaughters classroom, at her church, and helped family members instead. Here’s another example from the same library: a parent with two elementary-age children wanted to help shelve library books right before dismal time for the day. So, on random days she would come in the last hour of the day and volunteer. Some weeks she would help three or four times. And sometimes I didn’t see her for a week or more. But she helped when she could, and I always appreciated her contributions.
Of course there are negative examples as well. When I worked as a librarian at another school, one volunteer scheduled herself to work twice a week for two hours. It was quickly apparent that this was too large a commitment for her. She would rush in 5-minutes later than scheduled, apologizing profusely (not that her apology was required or expected.) Many times she had coffee and a pastry in-hand, because she didn’t have time for breakfast. Another day she brought her toddler because her baby-sitter was sick (yes, she was hiring a sitter so that she could volunteer!) After a few weeks I tactfully spoke with her and encouraged her to reevaluate her availability. Unfortunately, this led to embarrassment, and she didn’t volunteer again. In hindsight, I should have talked with her about her time schedule before she committed to volunteer at the school.
The best school volunteers accept a simple “thank you” as payment.
Do schools appreciate volunteers? We certainly do! And unfortunately we can’t afford to pay volunteers what they’re worth. The best volunteers understand this, and accept our thanks as payment. Yes, we’ll probably have a volunteer appreciation luncheon, and you may get a coffee mug full of Hershey Kisses. But any money spent on extravagant parties or expensive gifts ultimately takes money away from the students. The best volunteers understand this.
The best school volunteers train other people to take their place.
Most volunteers enjoy serving at the school their child attends. And of course, as children get older, they change schools! It’s great when a volunteer adopts a protégé who will fill their shoes when they move on to the middle school or high school.
Recently I worked at a middle school with an awesome band program. Each fall a group of dedicated parents fits each bandsman with a uniform and makes the needed alterations. And every spring the uniforms are collected, mended, and organized for next year’s distribution. This process has gone on like clockwork for longer than anyone can remember. Have the current volunteers been serving for 20 years? Of course not! Each year a few new band parents are recruited as the 8th grade parents move up to the high school. The replacements are trained, and the well-oiled machine continues.
Thank you, volunteers!
As you read this posting, you probably thought of the wonderful volunteers that serve at your school. Why not send an email link to your best volunteers, and let them know how much you appreciate them? We certainly can’t pay our volunteers what they’re worth, and we don’t know how we’d get along without them.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 36 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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