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Are There Any

A pain-free approach to getting

the very best out of parents

By Lauren Barack
40 Scbool Library Journal DECEMBER 2010
With more than 30 years on the joh, Cassanidra Barnett has seen loads of parent volunteers
make a genuine differenee in the sehool hbraryand others who disappear after a week or
so. "I had mothers who wanted to volunteer, but they caneeled as often as they eame," says
Barnett, a media specialist at Arkansas' Fayetteville High School and past president of the
Ameriean Association of School Librarians. "These are well-meaning people. But if they
didn't show up or moved away, J would have put a lot of time into training them and have
nothing to show for it. "
T hat won't eome as mneh ofa shoek to sehool shelves neatly organized in fheir own assigned
librarians nationwide. While volunteers can be area of the librarygives them a sense of ow lier-
the backbone of a library, there's a fine arf fo ship and pride in fheir work. "We treat it just like
crafting a well-oiled team of belpers, espeeially a job," sbe says. "Tbey apply for fhe position, get
in fbese fongb eeonomic finies when a nonpaid reeommendations, and we do interviews. Thaf
assistant ean end np faking yonr job. experienee has been wonderful."
Case in poinf? Librarians at Bridgewafer Mid- Wbile Barnett's stndents ean'f gef more fhan a
dle Sehool and Raynham Middle Sehool in Mas- year's eredit for working in the library, some find
saehnsetts reeently lost their positions, and parent it so rewarding that they stay for another year,
volunteers are now being trained to shelve and foreing her to tnrn neweomers away. On rare oe-
circulate booksdespite the objections of tbe easions there's someone who deeides to turn if
Bridgewater Raynham Edueation Assoeiation. into a lifelong eareer. "Last year we had a former
While handing a library over to parents is eer- student aide who eontaefed us for lefters of refer-
fainly not the norm, many media speeialists are enee for an MLS program," she says.
now working wifh skeleton erews. But when stndents just aren't an option, parent
Of eonrse, recruiting students is often the most volunteers ean be erueial. "There's no way I eould
ideal seenario. They're already on-site and usu- present the high-qnality program that I have
ally earn some sort of seliool eredif, which gives without my volunteers," says Heidi Snively, a li-
them an incentive to show np on finie, and regn- brary media specialist at Crand View Elementary
larly. Barneff gives onf service credifs, along with Sehool in Manhattan Beaeb, CA, wbo's managed
grades, to sfudents who are assigned responsibili- to reernit abont 70 parent helpers. "I am happy
ties such as shelving books properly. And fhose fhey volunteer beeanse it sends a message to fhe
who make the eut spend the first week of school ehildren abont the imporfance of sehool, books,
receiving extensive training, whieh inelndes and reading." Snively ean even boasf abonf a ros-
learning how to shelve, answer phones eorreetly, fer of repeat moms and dadsand many otbers
speak appropriately with teaehers, and freaf fellow wbo often eorner her the year before in hopes of
sfndent library nsers witb respect. seeuring a plaee on her team.
Barnett finds tbat training stndenfs thoroughly, The tasks she lays ouf for her crew are fairK' ron-
and fhen giving fhem some proprietary control fine: staffing the eirenlation desk, checking ouf
over eertain taskssuch as keeping speeifie books, and even some lighf dusting. Volnnfeers are DECEMBER 201(1 School Library Joumal 41

also encouraged to interact w ith students, as opposed to done right away, she adds. Creating a checklist of what's
each other, to guarantee that kids have a positive librar}- realistically expected from nonjjaid help (http://ewul-
experienee. Snively always starts off the school year w ith may help
about two hours of training, showing volunteers how better manage your expectations. P'duScapes (http://
to use the computer and the Dev\'e}' Decimal System,, a
among other librar}' procedures. She's also created a lifelong learning website ereated by educators Annette
set of guidelines that are posted on the library's website Lamb and Larry Johnson, also offers helpful guidelines
(www', which de- for managing a successful parent volunteer program.
tails ever}'thing from shelving to checking out booksa Jn the end, Fenn believes an effective volunteer is
task in which Snively humorousl}' emphasizes that "ac- one who knows his responsibilities and time commit-
curacy is more important than 'spede.'" ments before taking the plunge. That's vvh}' it's crucial
Volunteers are given a near script on how they should for schools and PTAs to start recruiting help at the start
behave when students come in for read-alouds or les- of the new school }'ear, and to provide specifics about
sonsfor instance, don't disrupt kids who are listening the da}'s, hours, and training required, as well as links
to a presentation by shelving books. Such detailed guid- to an online manual or brochure. "That way the}' know
ance means Snively doesn't have to repeat herself con- up front," she says. "And that can help."
stantlyand it also helps parents understand exactly More often than not, volunteers arc open to help-
what's expected of them. Although with her volnnteers. ing out with just about any task. "For me, it's usually
Snivel}- knows they can handle anything she throws a project that's not urgent but has some importance,"
their way-. "These are people who in some cases have says Barnett, remembering one parent who turned the
run corporations and are now in the school library," she contents of an old card catalog into student bookmarks.
says. "So they're very capable and conscientious." "Then, it's not important if they can't come in every
Unfortunately, that kind of dedication isn't always day, but we end up with a product we can use and they
the normwhich is why some media specialists dis- feel they've accomplished something too."
tribute assignments more judiciously. As many teachers Then there are the volunteers that make a lasting
and media specialists know, there's nothing worse than impression. Mel R}'ane, who walked into Walgrove
parents who only take on projects that serve their self- Elementary School in L^os Angeles, CA, six years ago,
interestbut are apathetic when a librarian truly needs went from a part-time volunteer to running an after-
their help. Or worse, parents who voice their own opin- school Shakespeare program that's beloved by teachers
ions when it comes to certain subjects or to books in and students alike. "These are kids, and the}' don't re-
the lihrary's collection. Then there arc those occasional all}' care if you work for free," she says. "The rewards are
caregivers who use volunteering as a wa}- to snoop, per- bigger than }'ou imagine. "
haps peering from behind a stepladder while shelving a And wliile that's the attitude educators and school li-
book to see how their own children are doing or doing brarians hope for, these experiences don't always have
some recon on how a teacher interacts with their kids. happy endings. That why it's crucial to rein in your ex-
Jane Fcnn, an instructor iu Mansfield University's on- pectations and to be realistic. Kathy Wachs, a library
line School Library and liiforniation Technologies mas- media specialist at Stormoiith Elementary School in
ter's degree program, recommends assigning evergreen Fox Point, WI, had a full-time library assistant, but in
projects that aren't time sensitive, such as creating a sea- 2003 her hours were slashed 50 percent. Now Wachs
sonal reading bulletin board. "So if it doesn't get done, relics on 14 parent volunteers who make use of an ex-
the world doesn't grind to a halt," she explains. tensive and detailed online volunteer handbook (www,
Her biggest shocker? Volunteers should not check out
liooks. While the work seems fairl}- simple aud rcc|uircs untccrs.pdf) and help her run overdue notices, check
little training, Fcnn sees it as a potential violation of privacy. books, and sometimes shelve. That way, if someone
She once worked with a public library that trained its volun- doesn't show up, there's always a sub. "But if not," she
teers to remain silent about an}- book a patron checked out, says, "we manage."
even if the}' liked it. Feun believes that same rule should Ann Jason Kenne}, the librarian at Rice Memorial
apply to parents who cheek out materials or help students High School in South Burlington, VT, has one parent
choose books. "A school librarian should encourage that who volunteers one day of her time each week. Still,
conversation about what a child is checking out," says Fenu. there are more parents who'd rather work with the
"But not a volunteer. They don't have the training to knov\' school's "Friends" group, v\'hich raises money to bu}' new
what the best language is to use with children." fiction, lamps, and even reading chairs for the library. To
Remember, volunteers work for free so flexibility is Kenney, this is a better use of parents who may laek the
kc}-. That means not sweating it if a task doesn't get right skills set, but can still add value to a program. "You

42 School Library Journal nia:EMBi:R2oio

Help Is Here
If you're looking for some more guidance on how to set up
a volunteer program, these links can help you get started.

Alaska School Library Handbook
This wiki provides simple, step-by-step instructions and ways to
integrate both parent and student volunteers into the library.

School District of Philadelphia Schooi Library Handbook
Along with some common-sense advice, this handbook also pro-
vides links to additional outside sources.

Library Media Services Media Handbook
The best feature about this handbook from the Hillsborough County ents to help them understand the best way to interact with students,
Public Schools in Tampa, FL, is a moving menu that media specialists including what they should-and should not-say.
can click to download templates, time sheets, and applications that
can be customized for any school library volunteer program. "Valuable Volunteers: How to Find, Use, and Keep Them"
Maria Hastings Elementary School Volunteer Handbook ticles/McGown_0ctober%2020072007.pdf Sue McGown interviews other school librarians to get it right from
While aimed at schoolwide volunteers, the Lexington, MA, school's the trenches on their best tips on how to organize, thank, and keep
handbook provides some strong guidelines on how to speak with par- volunteers humming in media centers.

bave to be very up front," sbe says. "You bave to explore the library only to diseover that there's nothing for them
what tbey want to do aud see if it will work. If tbey don't to do may end up wondering why they agreed to do-
like it, wbat ean you do? You need to proteet tbe library." nate their time. So it's important for a librarian to know
Tbe bottom line? Jean Wilkins, a former director of bow and where to use them. "The opportunity for
tbe Illinois State Library, suggests tbat librarians get to sueeess would then be mucb greater than just saying,
know tbeir volunteers' strengths and weaknesses before 'We need some \'olunteers and wby don't you eome in
assigning a speeifie task. (A belpful form ean be found at on Wednesday, and we'll see what you ean do,'" says Wilkins. "That's getting off to the wrong start."
%20applieation.doe.) Sbe also puts a premium on re- In tbe end, it's all about figuring out bow best to use
cruiting belpers wbo eau eomplement ber own assets. mom and dad and not depending on them for the es-
"I would be looking for someone wbo bad strengths sentials. And that's where a ean-do attitude and a knaek
I didn't have," she says. "If they're not a good fit with for going with the flow may eome in handy. "I just tell
working with people, for example, you may want to them there's one of me, 14 of you, and 15,000 books,"
move them behind the seenes where they don't have says Stormonth Elementary's Waehs to her volunteer
contact with teaehers and ehildren." team. "And we're going to work it out."
To get the best out of volunteers, it's essential that
they feel useful, says Wilkins. Volunteers who arrive at Freelance journalist Lauren Barack lives in New York Gity. DECEMBER 210 School Library Joumal 43

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