Classroom Volunteers: Bonus or Bother?

It all depends on the guidelines you establish early on!

Lucille Murawski has volunteered at Edison Elementary School in Erie, Pennsylvania, for the past 11 years. Three mornings a week she works one on one with first graders, listening as they read aloud, playing math games, and just giving them a little extra attention.

Teacher Edith A. Cultu loves having Murawski in her classroom. “She is a huge help,” Cultu says. “She is kind, patient, and never critical. When she comes in, the kids run over to give her a hug.”

Murawski is part of the SERVES program (Seniors Earning Rebates Volunteering in Erie Schools). Her work as a volunteer offsets her school taxes. “It’s a great program,” she says, “especially because I love children. They keep me young!” Murawski is 86.

In Streetsboro, Ohio, teacher Karey Ralph welcomes volunteer Jane Burt into her classroom each week. “Jane is able to provide assistance at each child’s level,” says Ralph. “She is a true blessing in my classroom.”

“I work in the language learning centers and prepare materials for the children,” says Burt. “It didn’t take us long to work out a perfect system.”

Volunteers can be a real help, especially since few schools can afford classroom or clerical aides these days. As an extra set of hands and an extra pair of eyes, volunteers can do everything from helping children practice their reading or their math facts to cutting out and laminating bulletin board decorations. They can save you time and effort, give students extra individual attention, and contribute to a well-run classroom. Or not.

While many teachers like Cultu and Ralph report positive experiences with volunteers, others say volunteers can end up being more of a hindrance than a help. Finding jobs for them and monitoring their involvement with students can be just one more responsibility for the teacher, some say. When the volunteer is the parent or grandparent of one of the students in the classroom, teachers sometimes feel uneasy. “I always wonder if my volunteer is judging me,” confesses one teacher. “And I worry about what she says regarding me or my students outside of the classroom.”

Other teachers note that some volunteers don’t show up when they say they will or that they interfere with classroom protocols. “I don’t want my classroom volunteer to tell students what they can and can’t do,” adds one frustrated teacher.
Still, a major initiative in many schools for the past decade has been to increase parent involvement. We try to keep parents informed about their child’s progress and school activities. We work as a team to make the whole school inviting to both children and adults. Welcoming or even encouraging parent participation is a goal of many schools, and volunteering is one way parents can be a part of their child’s day. In addition, schools can save money by having volunteers help not only in the classroom, but also in the cafeteria, on the playground, or in the copy room. 

So why are some volunteer experiences pleasant and productive while others are disappointing and frustrating? How can you use volunteers effectively so that the experience is positive not only for the volunteer and the teacher but, most important, for the students?

Not surprisingly, effective use of volunteers is a result of careful planning and realistic expectations. Establishing practices and procedures takes time and effort, but once they are in place, the results can be positive and enduring. Simply inviting a parent, grandparent, or other adult to “help” in the classroom isn’t enough; plans need to be specific and clear. Whether volunteer programs are schoolwide or particular to each classroom, the likelihood of success increases if you keep these guidelines in mind:

-Match the volunteer to your classroom needs. Ask the volunteer what activities he or she would like to do and whether he or she feels comfortable working directly with children. If you need someone to work one on one with struggling readers and the volunteer only wants to prepare materials, it’s better to know that from the start. You may still be able to use the volunteer, just not in the way you had hoped.

Some teachers send home a request for volunteers at the beginning of the year and update it as the year progresses. They list the specific kinds of help they could use along with times the help is needed. This way the teacher can enlist the support of her students’ parents or other adults while making sure that volunteers know what is expected.

-Review basic protocols. If the volunteer can’t make it or is going to be late, whom should she call? What’s the appropriate attire for adults at school? How will you and the volunteer address one another during school time? Should the volunteer sign in at the main office and get a name badge? Where can she leave her coat? Knowing the answers to these questions will help the volunteer feel more comfortable.

As teacher Karey Ralph says, “Volunteers must be immersed in the learning environment so that they feel part of the classroom community.”

-Discuss confidentiality. Don’t assume that volunteers know what information is appropriate to share and what isn’t. While volunteers should never have access to a student’s grades or records, simply by being in the classroom they will learn about each child. Remind your volunteer that as a teacher you never talk about individual students outside of school and that you expect that he or she will adhere to that rule as well.

-Agree upon a schedule. Decide how many days or hours per week the volunteer can devote to the classroom. Review the importance of being on time. If a volunteer works regularly with specific children, point out that children often look forward to the extra attention a volunteer can provide and will be disappointed if the volunteer doesn’t show up. Rather than expecting the volunteer to commit his or her time for the entire year, agree to a schedule of a month or six weeks. At the end of that time you can decide how to proceed.

-Offer specific strategies. If your volunteer is going to work directly with students, he or she should know what particular skills students need to practice and how he or she can help. For example, you might say, “Please work with Madeline on her spelling words. Give her a word, let her spell it out loud, and then write it down.” Or you might ask the volunteer to listen to a child read aloud and make a list of the words that are troublesome. Volunteers appreciate having a definite assignment rather than a general direction like, “Go over there and see who needs help.”

-Provide a specific list of tasks. As you learn what your volunteer can do, many tasks will become routine. Some teachers leave in a basket items to be copied or cut out or laminated. Some leave a list of students and their specific needs for that day. These instructions take a little time and thought, but they save the teacher from being interrupted and use the volunteer’s time efficiently. “I put a list of students who need help with particular work on my volunteer’s table along with clerical work every morning,” says Cultu.

-Discuss disciplinary procedures. The volunteer should be aware of the teacher’s discipline plan and know whether the teacher expects her to implement any part of it with the students. In other words, what should the volunteer do if a child is unwilling to work, or is unruly and disrespectful in the classroom?

Some volunteers will need the teacher’s direct support as they build their own confidence in working with children. The teacher might say to a recalcitrant student, “Mark, I need you to sit quietly and work on your math with Mrs. Wilson.” However, it’s important that volunteers themselves learn to insist on appropriate behavior so that children treat them with respect.

-Provide honest feedback.
Volunteers wouldn’t give up their time if they didn’t want to be useful and do a good job. At the end of the day or whenever is necessary, take a moment to talk with your volunteer about what works well and what needs adjusting. Volunteers usually appreciate knowing how their time can be better spent.

Ask for your own feedback, too. Either in a conversation or in writing, ask questions like: Did you receive enough direction? Was the experience enjoyable? Are there ways to make this a better experience? Volunteers are likely to give helpful, candid feedback if you make it clear you want their experience to be successful.

-Put it in writing. Some schools develop a volunteer handbook that contains all of the above information to give to people at the beginning of their volunteer experience. It’s important that the teacher go over the handbook with the volunteer rather than just hand it to him or her. The volunteer can refer to the handbook as time goes on, but the teacher should take the opportunity to stress certain points like confidentiality.

-Show your appreciation. Remember that a word of thanks is always gratifying. Some schools provide mugs or t-shirts or a reception for the volunteers at the end of the year. What you choose isn’t as important as the acknowledgment. And it doesn’t have to be a gift; a simple note of thanks will be appreciated. Remember that volunteers who have had a positive experience in your classroom are powerful ambassadors in the community.

Volunteer Jane Burt says that a 5-year-old gave her all the thanks she’d ever need. Marcus looked up from his work and asked, “Mrs. Burt, do you like coming here because Amelia’s in this class?” Amelia is Burt’s granddaughter.
“That’s part of the reason,” Burt said.
“What’s the other part?” he asked.
“I love coming here to see every single one of you,” Burt assured him.
“Good,” said Marcus, and he went back to his work.     

  • Subjects:
    Classroom Management, Educational Policy, Educational Standards, School Facilities
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