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April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Volunteer Programs: When Good Intentions Aren't Enough

Volunteers can be a great resource for after-school programs—if schools are willing to provide structure and support for success.

Recently, I taught in an after-school program designed to help students pass the latest round of high-stakes tests. As luck would have it, a professor from the local college was looking for a service project for his students. We were sure that we had a win-win situation.
At the beginning, almost every student had an enthusiastic volunteer. By the end of the program, however, only a fraction of the volunteers remained. What happened?
This experience reminded me of a similar one a few years ago when I coordinated a mentoring program for middle school students who were struggling either academically or socially. Volunteers assisted with homework, facilitated life skills programs and workshops, and staffed field trips.
One young woman showed up at all of the training sessions and was an active participant. After a few activities, however, she told me that she didn't want to volunteer with our group anymore. She confessed that the students' energy levels were too much for her. She wanted to tutor, but she felt that she was doing more behavior management than helping with homework. She explained, for example, that during the last session, she had spent half her time trying to get her student to put away his headphones and stop talking to his friends. Although our program was not a good match for her, I directed her to a tutoring program in a local elementary school where students were paired one-on-one with volunteers. A year later, she was still volunteering at the same school.
Expecting volunteers to know what to do and how to work together is like taking all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies and placing them on the counter, hoping that the simple proximity of good ingredients will form themselves into great cookies. Someone needs to mix the ingredients and put them in the oven.

A Recipe for Success

I've discovered that retaining volunteers is possible by following these guidelines:
Train volunteers with specific information. Training can be brief, but it should cover some basic areas. Tell volunteers exactly what is expected of them and of the students. Explain the school rules, including dress codes and the protocol for checking in at the school. For example, we needed to talk to the college students about proper attire for an elementary school; the tank tops and flip-flops that they wore on campus were not appropriate for the school setting. Also, do volunteers need to sign in at the main office? Do they need to wear a name badge? Many schools see identification of all adults in the building as a safety issue.
Review the school's expectations for the students' behavior and make clear the consequences for inappropriate behavior. For example, if the volunteer feels that a student is being disrespectful, what should the volunteer do? Are students supposed to refer to the volunteer as Miss Smith, or may they use first names?
Show volunteers where they'll be working. Point out rest rooms, drinking fountains, and the main office. Volunteers will feel more comfortable if they are familiar with the environment.
For our middle school mentoring program, training was extensive. We found that presenting information about discipline and behavior management was not enough; volunteers needed to act out different situations through role playing to be more prepared for the real thing.
Provide teaching strategies and materials to volunteers. Teaching is a skill, and not everyone is born with it. Provide specifics about what volunteers should do and what skills the students need to work on. For example, assign volunteers to practice flash cards with particular students rather than pointing them toward a group of students and saying, "See who needs help."
Have one school contact person for volunteers. Ideally, this person should have some authority in the school and should have information about all of the school volunteer opportunities. If a volunteer is not a good fit in one program, the contact person may be able to find another placement and prevent losing the volunteer.
Put important information in writing. This includes dates and times that the volunteers are available, contact numbers, and e-mail information.
Make sure you have a good match. Look closely at the needs of the volunteer, the student, and the teacher. What is the volunteer looking for? What does the student need? What does the teacher want? If the volunteer wants to read to someone, the student needs a big brother or sister, and the teacher wants someone to grade papers, you have a disaster waiting to happen.
In my after-school classroom, for example, I asked volunteers to lead various workstations around the room. The teacher next door preferred that her volunteers sit with individual students to assist them while she taught at the front of the room. Although we both worked in the same program, we had different teaching styles and, therefore, different expectations for our volunteers.
Facilitate icebreaker activities at the beginning. Volunteers are more likely to return if they feel welcome and a part of something. For example, ask each volunteer and student to create a name tag with a picture of a favorite animal or food. Pair volunteers with students and ask them to introduce one another to the group. This activity will also help the volunteers and the students get to know each other before they work one-on-one together.
Respect volunteers' time. Clearly define the job the volunteers will do and have something for them to do during each session. Volunteers have a limited amount of time and do things besides volunteer. Plan how to let volunteers know if school is canceled or if the students they work with are not at school that day.
In an elementary school program that I taught in, students took pre- and post-tests on material they were studying. I tried to structure the tests at the beginning or the end of the session so that volunteers could either come late or leave early rather than wait until the students were available.
Stress the importance of consistency. Once students develop a relationship with a volunteer, they count on that person being there every time. Some students may not understand why the volunteer is not there and may blame themselves. If a student has experienced significant upheaval in his or her life, an inconsistent volunteer may do more harm than good.
Recognize and appreciate volunteers. Most are not volunteering for the recognition, but everyone likes to be appreciated. Send weekly e-mails to let them know about upcoming events. Ask students to make holiday cards or to create certificates of appreciation signed by each student at the end of the year. In my elementary school program, the assistant principal hosted a volunteer recognition brunch and asked school personnel who had benefited from the volunteers to provide the food.
  • Did you receive adequate training for what was expected of you?
  • Are there any areas in which you would like additional training next year?
  • Was the experience enjoyable?
  • Would you volunteer here next year?
  • Would you recommend this experience to a friend?
For teachers, ask whether the volunteers were helpful and whether their presence created more or less work. Would teachers use volunteers again next year? Did they feel the experience was helpful to their students?

Good Intentions, Dramatic Results

When all of the pieces come together, a volunteer in a school can produce dramatic results. I had one student who struggled with maintaining consistently good behavior. Although I had set up a behavior modification program, some days Erin would not follow directions and didn't seem to care. Then one day, a volunteer named Anna walked into my room. I paired her with Erin and the two of them clicked.
Erin became a different person. On the days that Anna was there, Erin was so excited to have Anna's undivided attention that she was a joy to be around. Although Erin wasn't always able to maintain this new behavior on the days that Anna wasn't there, the positive change gave me new insights into this student and gave me hope on the difficult days.
In a time of dwindling resources, schools need to rely more on community support. Volunteers are a great community resource, but success doesn't just happen because of physical proximity and goodwill. Schools need to provide structure and support to effectively match people's needs.
The road to heaven is paved with careful planning and preparation—and good intentions to light the way.

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