Allison Bell Hoyt, the visual art specialist at San Diego Cooperative Charter School, works with dozens of volunteers each year. Her volunteers work in her classroom and on special events, including a school-wide art show featuring nearly 2,000 artworks. Hoyt finds volunteers to be a valuable resource that benefits both teacher and student. She offers the following tips to other educators who may be starting out with volunteers:
Hail the almighty calendar. Whether you use a paper or digital calendar, it’s important to utilize one. Hoyt schedules volunteers in advance—even just a day—so that she is ready to use them effectively when they arrive. Still, volunteers will drop in to help and Hoyt has a box of little jobs ready to go. Often these are simple but essential projects, like sharpening pencils, checking for working Sharpies, and cutting cardboard.
Get a good start. Before putting volunteers to work in your classroom, be sure they know and understand your expectations and needs. Provide clear instructions. Show them where materials are stored. Give them an overview of your classroom rules if they will be volunteering with students. If you will ask volunteers to handle materials and clean up, be sure they understand in advance that this is messy work and to dress appropriately.
Provide a variety of tasks. Some volunteers will arrive at your classroom door thinking they are artistic. Others won’t, but will recognize the value of your art form and will want to support your efforts. Have tasks for both groups. Some tasks may require some artistic knowledge or experience, such as helping students learn how to hold a brush or a bow correctly. Other tasks may just need to get done like making copies. Volunteers will return if they feel confident in the tasks they undertake. Hoyt also makes use of working parents, who lend a hand by taking volunteer work home to complete.
Set boundaries. Your volunteers likely have their hearts in the right place but may present some challenges. If a volunteer disciplines a student, Hoyt suggests you redirect them in that moment. Perhaps move them to a task with a different student or on their own. Be sure to speak with them afterwards and inform them they are not responsible for student discipline. One solution is to take a “good cop, bad cop” approach when working with students, with the volunteer taking the “good cop” role.
Use artist volunteers. Some volunteers have genuine skills and specialties as artists and Hoyt tries to capitalize on those. Those with teaching experience will work directly with her students. Others will share their expertise with her, teaching Hoyt a new skill or method, so that she can later use it with students.
Open doors and unearth hidden talents in your community. Parents don’t have to be the only resource. Organizations such as Volunteer Match can help connect your arts classroom with a new network. Many universities and high schools are looking for opportunities to place students in internships. Hoyt engages students from a nearby art college as interns, some of whom have volunteered for several years. You may initially invest more time in recruiting and orienting community volunteers, but reap the rewards when they work for you for years.
Express thanks. Saying thank you is a simple but powerful way to retain good volunteers. Most volunteers don’t work to be thanked but simply to help out. Nonetheless, recognizing their contribution with gratitude goes a long way. A handwritten note is a rare thing and will communicate more than the words you write.
Good volunteers are worth their weight in gold. Managing them effectively can pay off in large and small ways for you and your students.