Since arts classrooms are very different from regular classrooms, it’s important to know what makes this type of parent volunteer effective. Allison Bell Hoyt, the visual art specialist at San Diego Cooperative Charter School, works with dozens of volunteers in her classroom and on special events, and she offers the following tips on how to be a great arts volunteer:
Hail the almighty calendar. Schedule your volunteering in advance whenever possible and be on time. Hoyt suggests that if the teacher is in the middle of instruction when you arrive to volunteer, wait to check in rather than interrupting the class. If you do drop in without scheduling in advance, check for simple jobs ready for drop-in volunteers. Work on those until the teacher is available.
If you can, volunteer at the start of the school year for special events. Teachers who put on big student events, productions, or concerts, need to know months in advance how much support they will have. This helps them better plan and prepare for the event. Hoyt’s school year culminates in a student art show featuring nearly 2,000 artworks. She plans the event all year knowing there will be a large group of volunteers to do installation and clean up in the spring.
Get the lay of the land. Hoyt suggests when you first start volunteering, talk with the teacher about their philosophy and approach to teaching, particularly if you will be working directly with students. Learn and follow the classroom rules. Watch how the teacher interacts with the students. When you are working with students, never feel like you should discipline them. Leave that role to the teacher. If you are unsure about how to handle a situation, ask.
Model artistic behavior. Students are aware of volunteers’ behavior. When in the classroom, stay focused and model good listening. (A great part of volunteering is taking a break from your smartphone!) If you can, answer questions for students about the work at hand but do not try to do it for them. They may struggle but that is part of their learning.
Make a mess. Volunteering in a visual art classroom in particular can be a messy job. Not only are the materials often messy, but cleanup is dirty work. Your willingness to help students with cleanup makes you a valuable volunteer. Save the designer shoes for another time and roll up your sleeves.
Share your art. If you have expert knowledge or skills, talk with the teacher about their plans and needs. Does your expertise fit into their curriculum or classroom? If so, offer to share your expertise. Hoyt tries to capitalize on volunteers with arts skill that she does not have. She will often have them teach her a new skill or method, so that she can later use it with students.
If you have skills in the arts and a teacher does not immediately ask you to share it, don’t get discouraged. I volunteered my theater background to teachers for years, but there were no takers. At last, one year, a third grade teacher asked if I would help her with a Shakespeare project. Not only did I have a blast working with the students, she continued this project year after year.
Seek other support. There are terrific online tools to help teachers fundraise such as Donors Choose and Kickstarter. The paperwork, however, to set up a fundraiser can be daunting and seeking funding may not be a teacher’s strength. Helping a teacher with coordinating fundraising opportunities can bring a little extra bang for the volunteer buck.
Being a reliable, respectful, and hardworking volunteer can benefit students, teachers, and schools. The donation of your time and energy is a generous contribution. Keep up the good work!