A teacher and PTO leader offers tips on how class moms and dads can help—and have a more rewarding volunteer experience, too.

by Eileen Palma


Are you a parent volunteer who is unhappy or bored with the way your volunteer experience is going? If so, don’t get discouraged. You have the power to make your volunteer experience more valuable for your cooperating teacher, for yourself, and, most important, for the students.

A non-teacher would never guess the stress that teachers go through in preparing and organizing tasks for volunteers to complete. Today’s teachers are busy dealing with discipline issues, proficiency testing, constantly changing curriculums, and student safety. Many stay after school until well past dinner trying to stay on top of the game. A collective groan surges through the teachers lounge as we realize parent volunteers are coming and we still haven’t found the time to organize tasks for them.

The stressors that make it difficult for teachers to organize work for their volunteers are also the very same reasons we so desperately need assistance in our classrooms. We need volunteers now more than ever to help our students achieve the highest academic success and to help shape our children into individuals with strong spirits.

As a teacher, I strive to make the best use of volunteers by assigning them important and meaningful work. But it’s always a struggle to find the time to organize projects for my volunteer or even to explain how the classroom works. So over the years, I’ve devised a system that sets up the volunteers for success throughout the year, no matter how busy I get.

1. First Meeting

Schedule a 20-minute conference with your cooperating teacher to cover your daily responsibilities, grading policies, the classroom behavior plan, special needs of individual students, and schoolwide safety procedures. Bring a list of specific questions and concerns to make the most of your scheduled time. Don’t forget to ask about procedures for fire drills, school lockdowns, and other emergency situations.

2. Work Area

Ask your cooperating teacher to set aside a work area for you, such as a table or extra student desk. Assign a few students to label and decorate signs for your table and chair. This will remind students and a harried teacher not to use your work area as a miscellaneous storage space on days that you’re not volunteering.

Have the teacher set aside an extra stapler, pair of scissors, tape dispenser, roll of masking tape, glue bottle, pencils, Sharpie and project markers, different-colored pens, and stickers or stamps with a stamp pad. The extra time your teacher takes to assemble these materials will save you both time later when you’re in the middle of a lesson that requires any of these supplies.

Select another few students to label all of your supplies with masking tape and a marker. Assigning tasks to students helps you form a bond, and it gives them a sense of responsibility. Always make sure that you choose different students for each task. You may not remember, but a student will, if you "never pick him."

3. Teachers' Lounge

Before you take your first lunch break, ask your cooperating teacher whether volunteers are welcome in the teachers lounge. Some staffs welcome everyone in the teachers lounge. However, most staffs have an understanding or even a rule preventing non-teachers from taking their breaks there.

Because teachers have so little planning time, lunch often is the only time they have to hold meetings with their colleagues. These informal meetings often focus on confidential issues such as school politics and issues regarding individual students. It's difficult for teachers to discuss these matters when someone’s parent is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich next to them. Most administrators do not take their breaks in the lounge for this reason, so don’t feel insulted if you’re not made to feel welcome in your school’s lounge.

4. Bulletin Boards

When I was pregnant and had no volunteer, I still had a Halloween bulletin board up in my classroom when I took maternity leave in March. And though pregnant teachers often need the most help with them, bulletin boards are a stitch in almost every teacher’s side. Coming up with original ideas and then finding the time and energy to actually complete the bulletin boards is nearly impossible. So keep your mind open to ideas for bulletin boards, and share those thoughts with your cooperating teacher. Offer to make the bulletin boards a regular job that you can complete each week or each month.

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5. Be Open-minded

Try not to judge the teacher’s teaching methods and discipline strategies, especially during your first few volunteer sessions. It may appear as if the teacher has a diverse range of expectations for individual students regarding discipline and academics. But keep in mind that the teacher knows confidential details concerning the students’ academic abilities, domestic situations, and medical information that may affect behavioral and academic performance.

6. Boundaries

Before you start your volunteer experience, have a clear idea of what your personal boundaries are. Are you comfortable having the students refer to you by your first name, or would you prefer to be called Mr. or Mrs.? Are you willing to discuss aspects of your personal life such as your spouse and children?

Children ask adults a lot of personal questions in an attempt to bond. Because children are developing social skills, they are still learning the difference between appropriate and inappropriate questions. I usually answer personal questions that are within my own comfort level as long as they are asked during suitable times such as recess or between lessons. If a child asks a question that I don’t want to answer, I let him know in a polite way.

7. Communication

It may be difficult to find time during a busy school day to actually talk with the teacher, so if you have any questions or concerns, let the teacher know that you need to set up a time to talk. You might want to ask your cooperating teacher for her e-mail address in case you need to contact her between your scheduled volunteer days.

Always let the teacher know if you are having difficulty with a task. Completing a project the wrong way creates more work for the teacher than taking a few minutes to ask questions during the process.

8. Behavior Plan

Most schools have a discipline plan with clear-cut consequences for negative behavior and rewards for positive behavior. Many teachers add to the schoolwide guidelines by making a more specific behavior plan for their classroom. Know the method that your cooperating teacher uses to handle positive and negative behavior, and know what role you will play in that plan. Try to follow the behavior plan as closely as possible to the way the teacher does. This will prevent a good cop, bad cop scenario.

9. Grading

Ask the teacher to explain her grading system and the part she would like you to take in the process. Does she want you to help collect homework and class work and to mark correct and incorrect answers? If you are to mark answers, is there a system for establishing a grade? Don’t be surprised if your cooperating teacher prefers to do the actual grading herself. Many teachers feel an ethical obligation to complete all grading in their classroom to keep their assessment process consistent and confidential.

10. Special Needs Students

Every class has individual students who need more help than the teacher can provide on any given day. These students may have behavior problems, learning disabilities, or personality traits that cause them to need extra attention from an adult. Ask your cooperating teacher which students you can help.

Any time you don’t have something to do, assist one of these students with whatever task they may be struggling with. I find it most useful when a volunteer helps needy students during transition times such as walking to art, snack time, or getting unpacked and organized at the start and end of lessons. You’ll be surprised at the positive difference you can make in a child’s life by extending just a few minutes of your individual attention.

And remember, volunteering in the classroom is one of the most important things you can do to help build a strong community. A child’s values, goals, and personality are shaped by the people who come into his life, if only for a brief moment.

Eileen Palma teaches in the public school system in Columbus, Ohio.

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