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In the face of national concern over school effectiveness and the emphasis on raising aggregate test scores, many districts are participating in mentorship programs or enlisting the aid of parents and community volunteers to assist with day-to-day classroom work. Parents, particularly those of young children, are often willing to come into your room to help you in whatever ways you may need.
The prospect of willing adult hands sounds nice on the surface, but once teachers get down to the nitty-gritty, many find that having volunteers can seem like more bother than it is worth. Volunteers must be trained and planned for. They must be shown what to do and how to do it. Some are more capable than others, and it can be tough to find the time and energy needed to utilize them effectively.
That being said, volunteers can be a huge asset to your classroom, so don’t turn down their help! Here are organizational and management hints to help you take advantage of volunteers’ services without creating an undue burden on your time.
With just a small investment of energy and a bit of preparation, you can have supplemental activities, record-keeping information, and management tools all set up and ready to go. And, new volunteers will only need minimal training once you get your system set up and running.
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Create a Volunteer Box
Since most volunteers have a desire to work with children, you might want to start your organizational efforts with a Volunteer Box.You’ll need a large box, tub or tote that you can devote to this project. You’ll also need some basic supplies, like paper, markers, and tape, a duplicated class list, record sheets, and some games or activities that will benefit the students in your class. Make a sign for the box so it is easily identified, even by new volunteers.
Choose individualized or small group activities that some of your students will benefit from doing. You’ll get more mileage from activities that need a bit of adult supervision or assistance. Choose things that at least some students cannot quite do independently. Some ideas include board or card games, flashcard drills, or manipulative activities. Package each with a duplicated class list and highlight the students who will benefit from this kind of extra practice.
The last piece to the system is a set of clear, step-by-step directions to attach to each activity. Include guidance about the number of students to group together, or even specific individuals to work with at the same time. Make a list of any other supplies needed, such as paper, pencils or markers. You might also want to indicate a suggested time limit for each session, any special place for the activity (table, hallway, library, etc.) and any other information to help the volunteer know exactly what records to keep or what else to do.
Affix the instructions to each activity, and put a selection of these prepared ideas into the Volunteer Box. Now you’ve got a ready-made set of instructions for your volunteer and have minimized the need for him or her to interrupt your teaching time with questions.
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Make Some Space
Your volunteers may also benefit from having a defined space in your classroom. For most situations a desk is out of the question, but perhaps you can set aside a corner, a small table, or even a larger student desk. A bit of personal space will help your volunteers feel welcome and valued, and can also be used to store supplies like pencils and paper in an easily accessible and obvious place. You can also leave instructions, messages, and suggestions in this area, again minimizing disruptions to instructional time. Finally, it’s helpful for your volunteers to know where they can leave their personal items like purses or briefcases, when they come to your classroom.
Personalize the space and decorate it a bit to make it more welcoming. You can get the kids into the act for this project. Make some posters and signs during art class. Try creating decorations on the computer during your computers class. Suggest activities in this vein for those children who always finish class work ahead of schedule. Don’t forget that many schools allow hanging decorations from the ceiling or at least from the front and sides of desks or tables. A pencil holder is a thoughtful touch, as is a decorated bin for record sheets or messages to you. Don’t forget to post a current seating chart, as well.
An IN/OUT box is a very important tool. You can leave projects that need behind-the-scenes assistance in the IN box for your volunteer, such as preparatory cutting for the art project or duplicating to take care of for you. Other activities might include entering grades or data into your record-keeping system or grading papers (don’t forget to leave the answer key!).
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Develop a Routine
Even if your volunteers change on a daily or weekly basis, it’s still helpful to develop a routine for their time in your classroom. With a routine in place, even the students will be able to help new volunteers understand what needs to be done and how to go about each task. Try writing the routine onto a poster or sign and hanging it near the volunteers’ work area. Clearly label everything the volunteer will need to find, such as an IN/OUT box, activity centers, and supply storage areas.
For example, a volunteer schedule might include the following steps:
- Check the IN box and take care of all tasks marked with the red priority star
- Use activities from the Volunteer Box to work with students from 9:30 until 10:45 (during our small group instruction time for language arts)
- Finish tasks from the IN box during our large group science lesson from 11:00 until 12:00 lunch.
- Assist with cafeteria supervision from 12:00-12:30.
- Take small groups to the library to work on research for their science reports between 1:00 and 2:15.
A routine schedule that allows for flexibility will help your volunteers be as productive as possible and will help them understand your classroom routines. They will be more comfortable and less likely to need your attention during class time.
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Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Volunteers want to work in partnership with you. They feel strongly about assisting with children’s education, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. Treat them like the partners that they are. Set aside time (during recess, before school, after school, on the phone, or even by email) to talk with each of the volunteers.
Discuss what’s working and what’s not. Make sure everyone feels like they are contributing. Find out what each individual’s strengths are and help them fit into your program just like a cog in a wheel.
Together, you can create the most effective classroom and that will only benefit your students and your own peace of mind.