Do you have parents waiting in the wings, wanting to volunteer? Or are you unsure of how to ask for help, if anyone is available to volunteer or what kinds of tasks are appropriate? Figuring out a way to use volunteers—either in the classroom, during special projects or even behind the scenes—could make your job as an educator easier. Here are five ways to put willing and able volunteers to work for you.
1. Create opportunities to allow volunteers to lessen your workload. Jennifer Donaldson, a fourth-grade teacher at Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex, North Carolina, used to be on her own to stuff the “Friday Folders” for her 27 students. This usually ate up at least an hour of her day, filling the folders with work, school communications, flyers about upcoming events and more. Now she has a volunteer on Thursday afternoons to take care of the task. At Eanes Elementary School in Austin, Texas, “We use parent volunteers to run our copy room, doing a job a teaching assistant might have to do,” says Nicole David, first-grade teacher. “They copy, laminate, cut, paste, staple and organize anything we might use in our classroom.” Clearly this extra help frees up the teaching assistant to, well, assist teachers!
2. Tap into your parents’ talents. A parent who works as an artist or writer could provide priceless help when your school is working on a mural or art show, or your class is editing their journals. Why not survey your parents about any special talents they have and find out if they would be willing to volunteer? Hand out this survey on back-to-school night or send it via your school’s listserve. “From the first moment parents step through the doorway, we let them know of the opportunities for being involved in the classroom,” says David, a former parent volunteer herself.
3. Have specific tasks for volunteers to do when they show up to help. When Donaldson’s fourth-graders are working on research papers, she asks her volunteers to work with students to gather their research information or proofread their finished work. At David’s school, volunteers are assigned to help in the cafeteria so teachers can have a few quiet minutes to eat lunch. David might also ask a volunteer to read to the class or take them to the library.
4. Understand that not all parents can donate time during the day. Parents who work likely want to volunteer but just don’t have the time. You can find ways for these parents to help out as well. “Does your school have a garden? See if these working parents can help till the garden on the weekends,” suggests Karen Bantuveris, founder of Signup.com, a free website that educators can use to coordinate volunteer opportunities. Some parents may want to donate supplies or money.
5. Recognize that volunteers aren’t always parents. In many school districts parents rely on their own parents—the grandparents—to help with childcare or maybe there are multiple generations living under one roof. When you’re thinking about using volunteers, don’t discount the older generation. “I love having grandparents in the classroom,” Donaldson says. “I love the life experience they bring.”
Unless a parent or guardian has worked in education, they have no idea how hard an educator’s job is. So one of the unexpected benefits of welcoming volunteers into your classroom is what Donaldson has discovered: “They usually gain a new appreciation for what we do every day,” she says. “They tell me, ‘I can't believe you do this all day long’.”