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Pawlas on PR for Principals...

Volunteers and Mentors
Add So Much to a School


Setting up and maintaining a strong volunteer or mentor program is not an easy task. But most principals who take time to recognize the immediate and countless benefits of establishing volunteer programs feel the extra effort is well worth it.

As the number of families with school-age children continues to decline, the needs of our schools and our students continue to increase. Meeting those needs by using unpaid personnel -- volunteers -- is an approach that is working well in many, many schools.

Of course setting up and maintaining a strong volunteer or mentor program is not an easy task. It is an even bigger challenge today than in the past because of security concerns. Background checks, and the costs associated with them, were not an issue a handful of years ago. But most principals who take time to recognize the immediate and countless benefits of establishing volunteer programs feel the extra effort is well worth it.

Volunteer programs that are carefully designed are the ones that will succeed. Those programs are the ones that offer orientation sessions in which goals, expectations, and procedures are carefully explained to participants. Successful volunteer programs also include thoughtful evaluations completed by everyone involved: the volunteers, teachers, support personnel, and administrators.


[content block] One of the most effective techniques I have used to recruit volunteers is also one of the simplest: a request posted early in the school year in your principal-to-home newsletter. In addition to seeking parents' time, assistance, and creativity, you might encourage parents to ask if any of their neighbors who don't have school-age students might be willing to spend time and share their talents. My newsletter announcement always included an invitation to attend a session at the school. There, we shared information about our program and our wishes and expectations for it. After the presentation, we invited prospective volunteers to ask questions and enjoy some refreshments provided by the parent-teacher organization. Those who were interested in being part of the program were able to complete paperwork on the spot -- district-required paperwork as well as a questionnaire we designed to yield information about the volunteer's interests, skills, and availability.

In all my years as principal in a number of different schools, one of the best volunteer incentives I saw was offering a free lunch. Perhaps your school's parent organization would be willing to pick up the cost of feeding volunteers who spend at least four hours of a day in your school. When I was able to offer that incentive, it piqued the interest of many volunteers, particularly some seniors for whom that meal saved the time and expense of cooking a "big meal of the day." Some of those volunteers even enjoyed their meal with the kids as they formed friendships with them.


Chances are the families in your school are super busy. How could they possibly fit one more responsibility into their hectic days? The following ideas offer some suggestions for ways in which almost any parent might be able to volunteer some time in their child's school.

  • After training volunteers how to use the copy machine, we had some of them spend two or three hours one day a week making copies for teachers. School personnel who usually did this were then free to help in other ways. Having parents make photocopies helped out in some "invisible" ways too; some of the volunteers shared their new awareness of teachers' responsibilities with people outside the school.
  • Many principals have found that offering opportunities to volunteer for just an hour a week can make a difference. Many parents can carve out an hour of time on their way to work, during their lunch hour, or on the way home.
  • Some parents want to volunteer, but job or other commitments prevent it. So some teachers have found that sending work home can help them out as it helps parents feel they are doing their part. Preparing materials to be used by students in lessons -- such as paper materials that must be cut out and sorted into individual student packets -- is a project that many parents might be willing to do at home. At home, parents can cut out letters for bulletin boards and perform many other helpful tasks.
  • Some volunteers have computer and other technology skills. They can be especially valuable helpers when school projects call for those skills.
  • Sometimes parents or other volunteers can be encouraged to assume another valuable role: that of being a mentor to a specific student. Mentors who are willing to take time to get to know a student are worth their weight in gold. Those mentors can be caring listeners as they work with students to set goals and offer encouragement. They serve as role models in many other ways too. At one school where I was principal, a few mentors even took their mentees to the places where they worked. Of course, each student's parent had to approve the trip before it happened, but it was an experience the students will always remember.


While most volunteers and mentors don't get involved for recognition, a wise principal makes sure they take time to recognize volunteers' and mentors' efforts. They might do that by planning an appreciation event at the school, sharing articles about volunteer contributions in the school's newsletter, making sure teachers and students send thank you notes to volunteers, and by involving the most experienced volunteers and mentors in training sessions in subsequent years.

A colleague of mine, another former principal, puts it this way: "Because of their volunteer involvement, parents and community members really feel like a school belongs to them. And, of course, it does."

Another way to recognize volunteer efforts is to take photos of the volunteers and mentors as they work with students. (That might be the task of one of your volunteers!) Add those photos to a scrapbook that features highlights of the school year. If you obtain permission from parents, those photos might also be posted on the school's Web site.

Volunteers and mentors are huge assets to any school. They can become a school or school system's strongest allies. They can also serve as spokespersons for your school in other areas of the community. As word spreads about the great things happening in your school, you will likely have the volunteers to thank.

Be sure to see other columns by George Pawlas in his article archive.

Article by George Pawlas
Education World®
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