A Teacher's Guide to Working with Classroom Volunteers
Today’s schools have no choice but to use as many resources as possible — and not just for the economic benefits. Bringing parents into the lives of our schools strengthens our mission to create warm, supportive environments for the children.
Teachers and administrators face two challenges with parental volunteers:
Let’s dig deeper into these issues:
Finding (and keeping) the best volunteers
All schools attract a core group of parents who tirelessly donate their time, talents or money. With shrinking resources and rising demands, school leaders have no choice but to reach out to these parents.
While some parents volunteer without asking, others might require some active recruiting. The key is to get them involved in meaningful ways and to not upset the delicate boundaries that separate students, teachers and parents.
Teacher leaders and administrators need to get together to find areas where parent volunteers can play a helpful and vital role. Whatever you do, don’t forget these two points:
- Make certain your parent volunteers don’t get involved in duties normally assigned to a staff member. This can create the mistaken impression that the school is trying to save money on the backs of the staff.
- School board members should have a chance to review all parent-volunteer programs before they are implemented.
Here are three time-tested strategies to foster a great relationship with parents who volunteer:
Ask for help
After you identify the areas of the school where help is needed (volunteer lunch servers, library parents, classroom readers and so on), tap into your Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) to help publicize your new program and highlight the specific areas where you need help.
Working with the PTO adds credibility to the new program and also prevents the PTO from feeling as if you’re reaching into its domain.
As an administrator, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking parents are simply adults raising children and I forget that many parents have strong skills and attitudes that can help the school grow. Don’t hesitate to make contact and build relationships with parents who can bring a special something to your school.
The best example I can think of is the parent who offered her graphic-design services and eventually ended up designing new logos for the school, letterhead and banners that hung throughout the building. I always made it a point to say “thank you” over and over again (and memorialized my gratitude in writing) to this parent.
Look for the right attitude
I’m an eternal optimist, which usually serves me well, but I do need to remind teachers and administrators alike to make certain that volunteer parents have the right attitude about their roles.
From time to time — and definitely less often rather than more — volunteer parents will think that donating their time and effort gives them special access to the school administration. It’s vital to maintain your boundaries; otherwise you’re far more likely to alienate potential volunteers than to keep current volunteers happy.
Figuring out the best ways to deploy volunteers
Let’s now turn to getting parent-volunteers involved in the classroom. These are the main things teachers need to do to ensure they are working effectively with volunteers:
Establish how much help you need
Depending upon the structure of your class and the needs of your students, you’ll have to establish a proper level of parent volunteerism. In the younger grades, parent volunteers may have to limit their efforts to planning class parties, attending field trips and helping with fundraisers.
Perhaps you may want to expand that to a “reading buddy” program where children can practice their literacy skills with an adult. If your students are older or are in more complex classes, you may want to work directly with parents who have life experience in the subject.
When you begin working with your parent-volunteers, it’s essential to sit them down and review the norms and culture of the classroom. Focus on issues such as:
- Maintaining confidentiality
- Avoiding favoritism toward their children and their friends
- Ensuring volunteers remain positive members of the classroom
Nothing destroys a successful parental volunteer effort faster than to have them leave the classroom and talk about the children in the larger community. Other parents will not react favorably, and that could possibly lead to the end of your efforts.
Tap parents’ natural talents
Encourage your parents to make the most of their natural skills and interests. For instance, you can survey your students’ parents to see who might be interested in helping out in class and to see who might have certain skills that may help your class.
This can include those who can decorate your classroom, design bulletin boards, help edit flyers or plan class trips. This is a win-win for both the teacher and parent as it helps to free up the teacher for other tasks and gets parents more actively involved in the classroom.
Look beyond parents for volunteers
Another possibility to consider (be sure to clear it with your school principal) is casting a wider net for classroom volunteers. Why limit your volunteers to only the parents of your students? What about other community members who can help, like perhaps relatives of your students?
Obviously, it is important to make certain that all volunteers are qualified to assist and have passed all background checks, but why limit your options?