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Educational Roles for Volunteer Youth

by Gayle Janowitz - 1971

The movement toward a national volunteer corps in education must be a gradual process, but it is already underway at the local level. What is needed is to make education a part of the national service concept.

Present approaches aimed at improving inner city education, involving higher teacher salaries, lower class size, and piecemeal federal programs which are often merely an extension of the regular program, are not working. There is no evidence that the traditional in-school programs are effective either in teaching basic skills or in developing a sense of self-respect and self-esteem. Only massive input of labor power can help children who are now failing early in their school careers. Most failures later coming to the attention of social adjustment teachers, psychologists, and the courts involve reading inability, just as most failures initiate in first and second grades. Even then, only the most blatant are flunked. Thousands of children are "socially promoted" every year because the inner-city schools would never dare to fail all nonachieving children. This in effect amounts to a majority of their students.

A basic aim of increasing the supply of labor power in the schools is to give each child, individually or in a small group, extra help for one or two hours a week. Various forms of national service are required to supply the personnel to supervise a massive volunteer movement in education. It has been demonstrated that in a variety of settings children who receive such help once a week from rapidly trained and adequately supervised volunteers can achieve normally, that is, make one month's progress in reading or arithmetic in one month's time. This help does not make up for basic retardation, but for many children achieving "normally" is a new experience that so enhances their self-esteem that they function as "achievers" in school. Research carried out in Chicago's various experimental after-school study centers underlines the positive progress students can make when given individual help.1 Given the general low achievement level, any child who achieves normally, even if his basic retardation remains untouched, sees himself and is seen by his teacher as a "good" student, and this encourages further effort.

Teachers supportive of volunteer efforts say that it is not only the academic progress which is real and measurable, but more impressive, the confidence that children seem to gain from extra help by someone outside the classroom. These teachers report that it is the difference in the way the children return to class -- showing in their walk and attitude that they feel good about themselves as human beings. Some insist that this personal growth is observable, and that the improved attitudes of wanting to learn and feeling able to achieve make the real difference.

The fact that these extra personnel are not part of the school teaching staff is important. For many children in the inner city, school is the main or only contact with the outside world. In low-income neighborhoods one feels from listening to children who talk only of school, and of nothing else all summer, that teachers are far too important in their lives. There is simply no one else outside the family and teacher, and an opportunity to know other kinds of people and to be accepted by them may explain the children's tremendous at-. traction to individual help.

Initial Stages Volunteer work in education started outside the schools, in storefronts and churches during out-of-school hours. Such centers found that a variety of volunteers, including older grade school children, high school children, college students, housewives with high school or college education, and retired adults, could help children individually or in small groups. Individual work was obviously more rewarding to both children and so-called tutors. (The word "tutor" seems unfortunate and a bit pretentious; the term "individual help" is preferable. It seems more accurate, especially in poor neighborhoods, to talk of "individual help," since it is basically the help that middle-class parents give their children.)

Lower-class parents can often learn to give encouragement to their children, once they realize that the job does not involve doing the work for the child, or even necessarily understanding the subject matter. It is impressive how often parents begin to help their children academically after the child has been helped in a volunteer setting. Children are encouraged to read at home. For many, it seems a new idea that is welcomed by both them and their parents. For some children, there is no one in the home who reads English adequately, but sometimes a neighborhood friend, either child or adult, can help. This task of extending education beyond the school day has never been accomplished effectively by the schools. Typically, only better classes within a school, or better schools, have homework. It is assumed that parents of children in the lower tracks, or non-achieving children, have uninterested parents, an assumption that often proves to be wrong, once the parents realize that their children need help and that they can give at least encouragement.

All major metropolitan centers now allow volunteers in the schools. Before Chicago, one of the last to come around, admitted volunteers, it had more than 100 volunteer "after school" centers operating -- a remarkable achievement and response to the pressure of children wanting academic help. Many of these centers still exist, since some volunteers prefer to work outside of the schools, and some are only available after working hours. However, with the ruling that volunteers could be used in the schools, many out-of-school programs moved into the schools.

It was obvious that children wanting assistance would respond to help wherever it was available. The advantage of an out-of-school setting was that it provided a genuine second chance for a child who had often been identified in school as a chronic troublemaker or under-achiever. Since volunteers did not consider the children dumb, as the school often did, the children did, in fact, achieve. It was sometimes hard, however, to transfer this achievement into the schools when the volunteer program was physically apart. Within the school setting, children return to the classroom, and teachers are aware of the change in attitude, usually the first obvious result of extra help.

Using volunteers in the schools creates problems that are only slowly being solved. The crisis-oriented, authoritarian atmosphere of many institutions makes them unable to use available help. Teachers are traditionally trained as "solo" practitioners. They have little awareness of their professional role; they have not been trained to use any kind of help. The authoritarian organization in many places defines teachers as receivers and givers of orders. They receive orders from various administrators and give orders to their pupils. Classes can be shifted, children moved from the room or assigned to special programs, without their consultation. Likewise, teacher aides are often assigned in the same authoritarian fashion—wherever needed on a certain day or time, with no effort to determine their abilities or inclination. Their assignments may be constantly changed in reaction to crises. Such arbitrary, impersonal handling also extends to volunteers.

A Chicago School The regulations for volunteer help are broad enough to include academic assistance. The minimum time commitment is two hours a week. The case of Chicago's School X reveals how existing regulations can effectively be used to develop volunteer work. Thirty-five volunteers were recruited in a public elementary school in the fall of 1969 to give individual or small group help to children or to assist classroom teachers. Fortunately, the referrals were screened by the volunteer staff. Even more fortunately, the entire program was run by volunteers not in the employ or under the supervision of anyone on the school staff. Otherwise, the entire project would have suffered the same fate of several other programs run by school personnel, which were begun, changed, or abandoned during the two years the volunteer program ran.

The volunteer program developed by the Parents-Teachers Association was predominantly composed of middle-class mothers whose children were in the school's high-achievement rooms. Some grandmothers, students, and young professional adults from the community were included. The program initially focused on academic help, but expanded to include concern for the children's other needs. Clothing collection and distribution were added. Suspecting that in some cases physical problems interfered with academic progress, volunteers consulted teachers about referrals to the nurse. This often involved a suspected need for glasses. In every instance the teacher affirmed the need for an examination. In many cases, the teachers had sent such referrals months or a year before. If they had not, usually it was because they considered that their efforts would produce no results. A full academic year transpired before the school authorities could be moved to abandon their ineffectual referral system, which had caused several children to wait years for glasses.

Procuring other services for children was no easier in School X than getting glasses. Many services were available, but in most cases, it was the Parents' Association and the volunteers who explored the possibilities and informed the school. For the first time, children applied for art scholarships to the Art Institute, and twelve received them. The forms had been distributed to the school each year, but no one found the time to complete them until the volunteers did. Companies gave dozens of gym shoes, new winter coats at reduced rates, and other new clothing to the clothing depot as the result' of requests from volunteers.

The local public library and various museums in the city wanted the opportunity to coordinate their programs and materials with schoolwork, but no one was available to assist the teachers and children to use these facilities until volunteers arrived. The school had a number of "school-community representatives," but they, too, were caught up in the daily crises, with constantly shifting assignments, and did not have the stability or effectiveness of the volunteer program.

Teacher Referrals Experience demonstrates that teacher referrals of children needing help are often useless, since they tend to respond to the teacher's own needs. The temptation exists for the teacher to try to "get rid of difficult children in hopes that she will be able to conduct class. Despite orientation and discussion of the volunteers' ability to help normal children who read, but badly, teachers and other school personnel continually refer the nonreaders, feeble-minded, severely disturbed, or delinquent. It is not only that these are the most troublesome. Perhaps an even more important reason for inappropriate referrals rests in the process of keeping up an image, a preoccupation consuming much of the time of school personnel. Children assigned for help are often the most hopeless, and the ones on whom the school has spent an inordinate amount of time. The continual preoccupation with these few overlooks hundreds of normal, capable children who are not achieving. The schools appear to have tremendous vested interest in pretending that these children do not, in fact, exist.

Only two teachers of the thirty-five in School X gave consistently good referrals. Because all children were tested by the volunteer program before assignment, it was possible to find out by observation and testing who were inappropriate candidates. Without such observations and testing, it would have been necessary to rely on teacher referral only, and it was very difficult to drop children after an initial assignment.

Teacher-Trainees Volunteer programs offer college students training to be teachers the in-school inexperience they are continually seeking. Teacher-training institutions have such limited access to public schools that students frequently comment about the irrelevance of their course work and feel totally unprepared for the reality of a city elementary school. Many expressed doubts and misgivings about their ability to do the job.

Another major dissatisfaction among teacher-training students is the lack of respect for their faculty, some of whom, they claim, have never worked with children, and most of whom have not done so for many years. One college did request placement for students in the volunteer program at School X, and ten to fifteen future teachers were assigned each quarter as fieldwork for a course. Such college students offer important cadres for volunteer work in education. However, because the students in teacher training came only for a quarter (although several always stayed longer), assigning them was more time-consuming than for other volunteers. There is no reason why the academic programs could not be arranged so that these students could be involved for a full year. They came with the same varied backgrounds as other volunteers, from some who had never observed in a public school to some who had a variety of school experience. Their own interests, and the available placements, had to be considered.

In the United States the main effort in academic assistance by part-time volunteers, as at School X, is individual help or work with small groups outside the classroom.2 Candidates for individual help were tested with national reading tests different from those used in the Chicago public schools. These scores were often more accurate than out-of-date school records. The testing was done both for the information of the volunteers and for the benefit of the children who never saw a reading test after taking it. Scoring completed, the tests were shown to them by volunteers, who explained the scores and offered the children an opportunity to explain their answers. For retesting at least a semester later, different versions of the test were available.

While a few volunteers helped nonreaders or students who were more than two years behind in reading, the bulk of work was with young children who were already two years below reading level.3

The materials these children were reading in school were often too difficult for them. In fact, reading had been "stumbling" for them for so long that they actually read nothing, only parroting words that were told to them as they read short parts of an assignment in a reading group. The Parents' Association, therefore, spent approximately $200 on sets of basic phonics workbooks and some educational games and activities. They also collected a donated library of books to read during lessons and to loan to the children. Reading a "real" book, in contrast to readers, was often a new and exciting experience for these children.

New volunteers received at least one orientation session in the use of the basic workbooks, and experienced volunteers were always available to help. Volunteers also kept nominal reports of the work covered during the lessons which were available to new volunteers and helped in supervision.

At School X, most children needing help in reading were from Spanish-speaking families. They had often entered school knowing no English. By the time they learned to speak the language, they were already on first-grade readers, and had missed effective learning of the alphabet.

Basically volunteer work aims to show the child success in his academic work. This means starting at an earlier level and finding by review what is missing. The children never objected to beginning with the kindergarten book (unmarked but obviously easy), always enjoyed some success, and always needed the basic phonics skills. As important as any other materials was the library of books from which children could borrow for home use.

Assigning Volunteers Assigning students to individual help with children outside a classroom was easier than assigning them to work in classrooms. Nevertheless, students who sought more classroom experience before practice teaching had to be accommodated. At these times it was necessary to determine what help teachers wanted, and such irrelevant answers as "someone to make the kids do their homework" screened out many. Some who initially resisted accepting special help in art or music later expressed genuine appreciation. Usually a long period lapses before most teachers realize that there are roles for helpers other than the traditional ones of observer and practice teacher. As observer, the visitor does not participate at all; in practice teaching, it is quite usual for the teacher to hand over the class to the new teacher and walk out. The effort of volunteer work in the classroom is to explore the middle-ground.

The more effective the teacher the more use she can make of help. In the best organized classrooms, teachers allowed the students first to observe and then found opportunities for them to work directly with the children, if only in sharing the job of walking around the room observing and helping children in trouble with an assignment. These effective teachers seemed to enjoy the opportunity to train future teachers, and the students felt that they learned. Even those teachers who cannot make use of academic help can be trained to use help for clerical purposes, for trips, and the like. They can also utilize the referral system to volunteers who work with their pupils outside the classroom. Of course, academic help is needed not only in elementary school, but in high school and college as well. Particularly with open enrollment policies in community colleges, the need for extra help has greatly increased.

It can be anticipated that many entrants into national service will choose academic work if the opportunity is offered to them. Some will have participated in tutoring projects. For some, such work will be a chance to explore professional interests in teaching or other work with children. This has always been a valuable side benefit of volunteer projects.

The opposite will also happen. Some may decide, on the basis of the experience, that they do not want to teach. One teacher-training college claimed that the best dividend from their first tutoring experience for first-year students was the small minority who realized their lack of interest or ability in teaching and changed to other majors. The college claimed that this decision tallied closely with the supervisor's opinions. After completing three years of educational theory, when practical experience is traditionally first offered, both instructors and students are reluctant to admit that the candidate does not, in fact, relate well to children.

Reservoirs of Manpower Teacher-training students are not the only source of manpower for individual work. College students with no intention to teach can also give individualized help. In addition, a constant stream of adults recruited through the local volunteer bureau are available to the schools. Older children within the schools can also help younger pupils. This seems preferable to the present uses of older children as "messengers" or "monitors." Nevertheless, until we have a part-time or full-time volunteer coordinator or supervisor in the schools to "run interference" between teachers and available help, we will not be able to tap this potential supply.

If the United States is to have a nationwide and effective volunteer program in education, it could be achieved by national service. The essential missing element is the coordinating and supervising staff to mobilize the potential part-time manpower supply. This staff could be manned by young men and women engaged in one or two years of national service.

Volunteer education work in national service supports the Teacher Corps, which accepts only teachers with three years classroom experience. These professionals may include the very personnel needed in our inner-city schools. Available documentation on teachers in the Corps reveals that many are used for the very needs which volunteers could handle, specifically, work with individual children or small groups. Nevertheless, this program is obviously valuable both for the additional manpower it makes available and as advanced training for teachers. Teacher Corps veterans will undoubtedly be better able to perform as professionals and to make use of nonprofessional help as a result of their own experiences. If teachers are ever to use help efficiently, they must learn this as part of their training or by observing the success of such help in action.

Nonprofessionals in education have much to offer. Hundreds of interviews demonstrated that they seldom viewed the children as "dumb," as many teachers did, although the children were known to have normal I.Q.'s. Understandably, the teachers' reactions are to the behavior of the children who in a group could appear stupid, belligerent or uninterested.

Classroom teachers rarely said anything like "I have been unable to help this child." By contrast, nonprofessionals were more realistic about their limitations. Their job, as they saw it, was to interest that child and to help him to succeed; they were much more critical of their own efforts. Obviously, they understood the difference in their roles and gained more understanding of the problems of the teacher who faces thirty or more children, instead of one.

Nonprofessionals do not suffer from other disabilities which seem to be a result of teacher training. One is the idea that children of a certain age or in a certain grade "ought" to do work at a particular level or have certain skills. Perhaps more important is their willingness to experiment with new materials, since they, do not share the teacher's convictions that hers are the best or the only ones.

Attitudes on discipline are especially revealing. One volunteer with teacher training humiliated a reading group by having some of its members stand in a corner. Any nonprofessional would have accepted the failure of group work as her failure, and sought help, or sent the children back to the classroom, the alternatives offered to all volunteers. The techniques learned or developed as appropriate for classroom work are often inappropriate for a child or a small group, but it is often hard for experienced teachers to drop their authoritarian methods.

Of course, it works both ways. Nonprofessionals gain enormous respect for the work of good classroom teachers by learning a little about the job. Perhaps the best way to combat public hostility toward the schools and respect for the tasks they are asked to perform is to let outsiders share in their work.

Metropolitan school systems have no personnel to supervise volunteers within the school. Even if they had such a person, he would probably be a school employee, and this responsibility added to his other commitments. One or two young people assigned to this job from the district level through the channels of the Teacher Corps or a national service organization would have much more flexibility to work with local agencies, including the schools.

The average elementary school in the inner city has several hundred children for whom some contact with outside help would be helpful. A program of 35-50 volunteers in a school that has 35 classrooms, such as School X, was able to make some impact according to the teachers and the administration. One hundred volunteers could have been recruited and absorbed without problem if continual supervision and a paid staff were available. At School X, one mother was available each day to help run the program, but with two national service volunteers full-time, a program could be effectively expanded to involve the majority of students needing help.

Public Presence In addition to helping children in basic academic skills, a crucial reason for having volunteers in the schools is to guarantee a "public presence" in the lives of these children. Schools have for many years been isolated fiefdoms. Those parents who dare to intrude may get some help for their children, but this is seldom the case in low income areas. When they complain, it usually means that for a few days or a week the child is noticed, and school personnel become aware of and guilty about his poor performance. Probably he will be referred to a volunteer program, if there is one. Next week, likely as not, new crises will appear, and other students' problems given attention. Limited resources and unstable programs mean that volunteers will be asked to drop children to take care of more urgent needs. The volunteer program at School X did not have to respond to these pressures, only because it was not under the direction of any school personnel.

The public presence in School X resulted in noticeable changes. Teachers screamed less and refrained from some verbal abuse because of outsiders in the halls. Teachers who were at first reluctant to refer students or to have anyone in the classroom, the case with most, changed dramatically in one year. They saw other teachers receiving help and realized the obvious: the best teachers were always the ones who used help intelligently and with whom helpers liked to work. Gradually, these best teachers were able to help the less capable learn to be more professional.

The entire community talked about the volunteer program as a "first" in meeting the needs of the children. Even though only a few, approximately ninety, of the children needing help could actually be reached, and there were never enough classroom helpers for the gradually increased requests from teachers, the results for those helped were very visible. A volunteer program cannot cure many basic ills, such as incompetent teachers and administrators. But at School X, a large share of dissatisfied parents continually talk about the efforts of the volunteer program as a positive force that is containing social tensions.

Schools can no longer survive without a public presence; there is too much dissatisfaction between parents and teachers, too much hostility and misgiving on both sides. To create this public presence, it is necessary to have numbers of outsiders enter the school for varying time periods. Oriented and supervised, they can help children to succeed far better in school, foster teachers' self-image, and show parents how to assist their children.

The number of persons who will give a few or even more hours per week is in the millions. To mobilize even a fraction of those required, each inner-city school and many in suburbia with underachievers will require at least one or two full-time national service supervisors. Interested young persons should be encouraged to do individual and small group work with students before entering into their national service. Desirably, they would serve for two years, but even one year would be an effective period. The necessary skills can be developed by intensive training and on-the-job supervision. Such supervisors would be recruited from successful national service personnel; an area supervisor could be responsible for ten to twenty volunteer projects. The movement toward a national volunteer corps in education must be a gradual process, but it is already underway at the local level. What is needed is to make education a part of the national service concept.

  1. Gayle Janowitz, "After-School Study Centers: Experimental Materials and Clinical Research," Final Report, Project No. G-D27; also Research Report No. 12, Center for Social Organization Studies, University of Chicago, June 1968, 529 pp.
  2. Gayle Janowitz. Helping Hands: Volunteer Work in Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  3. The year before the successful volunteer program started at School X, a paid staff member started a program and the Parents' Association recruited twenty volunteers. All left within weeks because they were assigned directly to teachers who gave them only the most difficult children and no suitable materials with which to work.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 1, 1971, p. 81-90
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1578, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:12:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Gayle Janowitz

    Gayle Janowitz, educator and specialist in volunteer work, is the author of Helping Hands: Volunteer Work in Education.
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