Families & the Community Opinion

Help Us Help You: Five Tips for Working With Volunteers at Your School

By John T. McCrann — June 28, 2016 5 min read
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Life in a school can be stressful. I often find myself running around the halls. From class to meeting to lunch to class. I can get caught up in my own head as I move around. Papers to grade, emails to write, students to check on. This semester, my inner monologue was often interrupted with a cheerful “Hey John!” as I headed to my 6th period class. Tom Huser, a volunteer who I met through the organization Math4Science, was waiting at the door of my class. His positive energy, thoughtful contributions, and genuine care for our students helped re-energize me and — more importantly — helped students learn. School leaders and community members should take note of his recommendations. What are the ways you work to establish or promote this kind of mutually beneficial relationship where you live and work? JRTM

As you start planning for the next school year and face the daunting task of stretching limited resources to meet almost unlimited student needs, there is one no-cost resource you may have overlooked - volunteers in your classrooms. I’ve been retired since fall of 2014 and like many other retirees or semi-retirees I started soon after retirement looking for some opportunity to give back to the community in an area that was of particular interest to me. Education and youth services has always been my primary interest in this respect, something I think I have in common with many other people in my position.

However, I had no real good idea about how to find the right opportunity. So when I was introduced to Harvest Collegiate High School, a public high school near my home, through the not for profit, Math4Science, I was hopeful that this was it. It was and is.

I was supporting two math/science classes at Harvest this last semester and have been extremely gratified and satisfied with my experience there. From comments and feedback I have received from the two teachers with whom I worked and from the students, I would say that the arrangement has worked well for teachers and students as well.

So, how do you find good volunteers for your school? In addition to contacting organizations whose purpose it is to provide support for schools in your area or volunteer matching services, you can also reach out to community, especially senior, organizations in your area, your local press and your local school community. However, getting folks through the door is only the first step. Here are some insights I gained this year. Five easy things schools can do to help volunteers have a positive experience and keep them coming back and working effectively with teachers and students.

1. Make Sure It’s a Good Fit. One important first step in bringing a volunteer on board is to make sure that there is a match between the potential volunteer’s interests and the school’s needs. This can be determined in an initial interview. Also important is to make sure that the volunteer understands the culture of the school and can work within it. While I knew little of Harvest itself when I was first introduced to the school, I knew that it was a Consortium/Coalition of Essential Schools school and I knew something of their educational philosophy. I was and am still supportive of their approach to education. In addition, before I started I was given a tour of the school and we looked in on a couple of classrooms. If you can do this before bringing a volunteer on board, it will enable both of you to see if this is a good fit. At Harvest there is a significant amount of time dedicated to individual and group student work, which makes it easier to take full advantage of having a volunteer in the classroom.

2. Get the Amount of Time Right. As to the amount of time spent by the volunteer at your school, there obviously needs to be a balance between enough time to make it worth it to you to integrate the volunteer into your school operation but not so large as to go beyond what the volunteer is willing and able to give you. I was working about 9 hours a week at Harvest spread out over three days each week and that seemed to work well for all concerned. Toward the end of the semester, I added a 10th hour by providing additional coverage one day a week at the school’s after school tutoring sessions.

3. Help Learning Names Helps Build Relationships. One of the two classes I supported was John McCrann’s first-year physics/algebra class. In the first week of my time with his class, he gave me a copy of his seating chart. This enabled me to quickly learn the names of the students and to connect with them.

4. Provide Access to Content. We both realized that it had been more than a few years since I took high school algebra and physics. So my skills in this area might be a little rusty. John put all of his class materials in folders in Google Drive to which he gave me access. This way I could review materials in advance and if I felt I needed to refresh my memory on any area before it was handled in class I could do that. John didn’t use a textbook, but at schools that do use this resource providing a student or teacher version to a volunteer could be a high-leverage way to empower the volunteer with little cost to the school.

5. Play to Volunteer’s Strengths. In addition to general academic support, volunteers can provide you with some more specialized support that taps into their career experience. Before I retired, I had careers in law, business, and communications. So I had a great deal of experience in researching and presenting a position or proposal. When the students in John’s class were given a project of researching and presenting in groups a research question related to sports and physics, I worked with a number of the groups advising them on their research, the organization of their presentation and their presentation skills. John and the students with whom I worked felt that their presentations were improved as a result of the support I provided to them.

This has been a great experience for me, and I think for the school and the students as well. We are already talking about plans for next year. I think, though, that I am only one of many retired or semi-retired individuals who would be interested in providing this type of academic support to schools. To me it appears to be a real win/win proposition for all parties. I encourage you to take advantage of it.

Tom Huser has had careers in law, business and the public/nonprofit world. Immediately before retiring in 2014, he was the Chief Operating Officer of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, he fell in love with New York City the first time he visited it. He is a voracious reader, a lover of all art forms and travels whenever he can. His most recent trips were to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and hiking through the beautiful national parks in southern Utah.

Photo by niekverlaan https://pixabay.com/en/volunteer-voluntary-guide-guiding-422598/

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