“How can I support you?” asks the wide-eyed, grinning person standing in your doorway. Meanwhile, your mind is counting down the seconds you have to give an explanation before chaos erupts in the classroom behind you.
I’d guess that as much as you’d love support in your class, you also worry that managing volunteers can quickly feel like an addition of work that you simply don’t have time to do. As both a guide teacher and coordinator of several programs, I totally get it when teachers tell me, “Tom, I’d love to host someone, but….” I get it. It’s not that we aren’t interested, but our busy brains tell us to say no if there may be more stress involved.
After nearly two decades of hosting parents, student teachers, undergraduates on practicum assignments, or volunteer outreach program participants, I really want others to know two big secrets:
- Volunteers give incredible support to my students.
- Rather than adding stress, volunteers save me a ton of time.
I’ve asked a few of my volunteer-loving colleagues about how they organize classroom volunteers in ways that minimize teacher stress. Here are some no-nonsense tips that can help you.
7 Tips for Organizing Classroom Volunteers
1. Set aside a space for their stuff: “Seems simple,” a colleague told me, “but I always give volunteers a safe space to put their things right away. I find that this way, they aren’t feeling as though they need to worry about their cell phone or laptop, and they can focus on being with kids.”
2. Make introductions first, fun, and every day: “You want to do introductions first thing. It’s not just for the kids, but it also helps the volunteers feel welcome,” one upper-grade colleague told me. I agree. My class works with many volunteers, and the first introduction is huge. I recommend something fun or even silly, like Two Truths and a Lie.
Be sure to have the kids extend a warm greeting when the volunteers enter for the day and a goodbye when they exit. It’s a small distraction, but it makes volunteers feel welcome immediately and leave feeling important.
3. Let volunteers break the ice a bit: Another colleague told me that she invites volunteers to get to know the kids a bit; then she backs off for a day or more. “Some people just haven’t been around kids in a while, and certainly not a whole class filled with them. They remember being in a class themselves, but it’s different when you walk in as an adult.
“The first thing I do is tell them they are welcome to circulate and meet the kids, get to know them, ask them questions. Then I back off. I’ll then watch to see what their comfort level is. If they jump right in, I may have someone who can take a small group at some point. If not, I may have someone best suited to work one-on-one with a kiddo who could use the support.”
4. Let volunteers set their schedule, if possible: It may or may not work to let a volunteer set their own schedule to come and go, but when it does, many of my colleagues say to do it. “What you want,” says a third-grade teacher, “is volunteers to feel happy to be here and comfortable. So I let my practicum students come in when they can, rather than ask them to conform to my routine.
“Sure, I might miss a solid helper for math, which I always need these days. But if that person loves writing and is available, you can bet I will need a solid helper then too.”
5. Set clear expectations and norms right away: I often hear a common reason for why teachers don’t want to have volunteers. One honest colleague essentially said that if they have to talk to a grown adult about inappropriate behaviors, it’s a hassle that they’d rather avoid.
It’s a valid opinion and I get it. But a fifth-grade teacher at my school says she no longer worries about that. “Day 1, I have a list of norms which took me five minutes to draft. Even if folks are here for an hour, I hand them my basic norms on paper.” Among the list are basic dress code expectations, expectations for language, and yes, even gum chewing.
6. Never prep work: Instead, ask what volunteers would like to do. One of the most frequent questions I get is about what types of things a teacher should prepare for volunteers to do, and my best answer is: maybe nothing.
Yes, you can prepare work for a volunteer who wants to take small groups or who’s there for the long term and part of a well-established routine. But for most volunteers, I set up a space for them with materials like a whiteboard and dry erase markers so they can pull kids aside as an extension of what I’m already teaching.
This creates flexibility if I need to change something at the last minute and gives volunteers a chance to see me teach and to consider how they’ll continue the learning with kids. It also gives the volunteers agency over the activity without putting them in a situation that they aren’t trained for anyway.
7. Some volunteers don’t want to teach, and that’s OK: In some cases, it can quickly become obvious that not all volunteers have a teacher mindset or disposition. One of our most veteran teachers at my school believes that’s just fine.
“I often ask volunteers what things they feel comfortable with in the classroom versus what they would like to do. This gives me a chance to find them an activity that suits them best. The key word is volunteer, so I’m grateful for any time they have—whether it’s leading a literature circle, creating a bulletin board, filing papers, or helping a group prepare for their talent show at lunch. When volunteers do what they love, everyone wins in my class.”