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Valuing Our Volunteers

Here’s how to keep your small team of involved parents and community members happy, engaged and supporting your school.

By Melissa Campeau, with files From Melissa Martz
Photos: Joanne K

A photo collage of volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.
Volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

"Close your eyes, everyone,” Trina Tran, OCT, instructs the 17 excited students in her kindergarten class at Leslieville Junior Public School in Toronto. “Our mystery reader is here!” Parent volunteer Mike McCann, who has willingly rearranged his workday to visit the school, slips into the room carrying a small stack of books and takes a seat, cross-legged, on the carpet with the children. “OK boys and girls, open your eyes,” says Tran. There’s a chorus of giggles and a few shouts of “I know you!” from the children. McCann’s five-year-old son is beaming, surprised and delighted to see his father.

McCann is on-site to read a new story to the students, something Tran regularly invites school volunteers to do as part of her Mystery Reader program. She also welcomes parents and involved school and local community members to help with school trips, fundraisers, special in-class events, as well as everyday activities like craft projects, Lego building and science experiments.

Volunteers have become an integral part of the classroom environment — not to mention they bring different skills and a fresh perspective to the learning environment.

A photo collage of volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

In some cases, volunteers not only bring an extra pair of hands to class — the success or failure of a program depends on them. Bernie Pickett, OCT, who retired from a 31-year teaching career in 2013, is a big part of why St. Mary’s High School in Kitchener still has a football team. Coaches for the sport are in short supply, and Pickett was concerned that the program where he taught for 23 years would suffer. So, he volunteered to help the team. For Pickett, it’s a matter of continuing to use his talents where they’re needed the most. “Teachers spend their careers developing the skills to help students, parents, colleagues and the school community,” he says. “Why wouldn’t a teacher want to continue to use and share these qualities?”

Martin Bertrand, OCT, superintendent of Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CÉPEO), says his school board counts 862 volunteers on its roster. “These individuals share their knowledge and skills with the students,” he says. “That’s a priceless contribution.” Bertrand points out that when students see the helpers in action, it can inspire them to become volunteers themselves.

Make it easy

To help keep volunteers engaged in school activities, Bertrand’s board makes the offering of time and services easy from the outset. CÉPEO partnered with the Ottawa Network for Education (, a site that lists available volunteer positions, posts an online registration form and offers resources for prospective volunteers. “People from all over the city can access it,” says Bertrand. “When someone is looking for ways to volunteer, they can visit the site and see a list of what [positions are] available.” And when schools need a candidate with a particular set of strengths, they can quickly connect with the right person.

Even without an external online resource, administrators can simplify the volunteering process by providing information on how to apply and what’s expected of the volunteers on the school and board websites. The school can then develop a consistent process for placing volunteers in the most appropriate positions. The Ontario College of Teachers recommends that school boards screen volunteer candidates through background checks first.

A photo collage of volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

Find the right fit

Matching the appropriate person with the task is critical for everyone involved. “It’s important to find the right fit for volunteers based on their area of interest, their expertise and the time they are willing to give,” explains Antonia Pottier, OCT, who teaches kindergarten at St. Anne Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener. If a volunteer is creative, he might want to help with an art class, suggests Pottier. If someone else has a background in technology, she might share her expertise in a computer class.

Offer recognition

Whether they’re helping out at the annual fundraiser, escorting a class on a field trip or directing a school play, most volunteers offer their time because they identify a need, want to help and enjoy working with children. But, as with paid employees, recognition of effort and a job well done can go a long way toward building engagement and enthusiasm.

Bertrand’s board, for example, gives certificates and letters of thanks to its volunteers, while the individual schools organize special activities, such as end-of-the-year BBQs and invitations to the last parent council meeting of the year, to show their appreciation during a volunteers-themed week, Semaine d’Action des bénévoles.

A photo collage of volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

Some schools co-ordinate large events to honour all their helpers at once. Laura Kelly, an eight-year volunteer at St. Clement Catholic Elementary School in St. Clements, Ont., says her school invites volunteers to a celebratory breakfast during National Volunteer Week. Suddaby Public School in Kitchener hosts an annual tea party where volunteers receive a plant and a personal note of thanks from students.

In addition to schools recognizing their volunteer network, individual classes might also consider recognizing their volunteers. Tran has turned giving thanks into a class activity by taking digital photos of her students holding up the letters of the words “Thank You.” Students then paste the image onto construction paper and work together to come up with an appropriate, personalized message for the helper.

Other schools might wish to make a donation to a favourite charity in a volunteer’s name (or all of the volunteers’ names). And, for outstanding members of the community, schools might even want to nominate them for awards at the regional, provincial or national level.

Establish community

Cultivating a team of interested and committed volunteers who bring their experience and enthusiasm to students can have a positive impact well beyond the walls of the classroom. “Volunteers help bring the community and the school together,” says Tran. “And that’s a great thing, since everyone in a community has a stake in the students’ success.”

A photo collage of volunteers in action at the annual Picnic for the Arts fundraiser at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

Keeping volunteers engaged

When things go right — and engaged and capable volunteers help to keep a busy classroom or event running smoothly — teachers find themselves having more time to spend with the students. Here are five ways to get the most out of your volunteers.

  1. Collect information
    How can a short-on-time teacher manage a team of volunteers? It doesn’t have to be a big job, says Joanne Dolfato, a volunteer coordinator at Huron Street Junior Public School in Toronto, who manages an average of 40 volunteers a month. A small investment of time at the outset could yield a smooth-running operation for the rest of the year. “Teachers can send out a note or email to all the potential volunteers, outlining the available jobs and asking for information about parents’ skills, hobbies and interests,” says Dolfato.
  2. The matching game
    With a spreadsheet of volunteer information at a teacher’s fingertips, it’s easier to find the right person when an opportunity comes up. A good fit between volunteer and task can mean a more rewarding partnership for everyone — students, volunteers and teachers. “When you’re not sure about a volunteer’s skills, start them off with something easy,” suggests Dolfato. Watching them in action can also give you a sense of their level of commitment.
  3. Set expectations
    Be as specific as possible when you enlist a volunteer. “Say something like, ‘I would love someone to come in for an hour to help put a craft together,’” Dolfato recommends. With the exact task and time commitment clearly outlined, both you and the volunteer are less likely to be disappointed or surprised.
  4. Plan for glitches
    It won’t take too long to get to know your volunteers, especially if they’re your students’ parents. As you become familiar with them, you can slot them into the tasks best suited for their abilities. In Dolfato’s experience, the most common bump in the road tends to be volunteers who overcommit. In those cases, book two people just in case one can’t make it. If they both arrive, there will still be plenty of work to do. But in time-sensitive cases where you absolutely need a volunteer — on a field trip, for instance — she opts for the insurance of a second person in case one doesn’t show up.
  5. When it’s just not working out
    If a volunteer isn’t a good fit in your classroom, see if there’s a need elsewhere in the school (sorting books in the library or selling tickets at a fundraising event, for example). “Some teachers might choose to have a direct conversation with the volunteer,” says Dolfato, “but I tend to end the relationship slowly, calling on the person less and less.” She points out that for teachers who see parent volunteers at drop-off and pickup every day, a tactful and less confrontational approach makes sense. “I would say 99 per cent of volunteers are fabulous,” says Dolfato. “And they bring so much experience and enthusiasm to a [school] — it’s worth the extra effort.”