“We urge more of our fellow New Yorkers to impact the lives of others through service.”—New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Leaders across the country encourage volunteering, including in public schools. Often, teachers and nonprofit workers feel overwhelmed, unable to provide the individualized support their charges need. Retiring baby boomers especially offer an expanding pool of volunteers, with fewer constraints on availability than parents.
In New York City, nearly 500 reach retirement age daily; nationally, it is about 10,000. Many are highly skilled, after years of experience working. Yet across the nation, volunteer rates are declining. My experience, and that of several acquaintances, demonstrate how this is caused often by the actions of the very organizations that host and benefit from volunteers.
I have worked for years with youth to improve their skills. On retiring, I volunteered at my neighborhood elementary school in Brooklyn. I was inspired in part by the national Experience Corps. Since 1995 it has placed thousands of older volunteers in schools. According to rigorous external evaluations, these volunteers have produced significant gains for children, and deeply felt appreciation from school staffs. Operating now in more than 20 cities, it has almost no presence in New York City.
For five years, I helped teachers in what by all accounts was a successful partnership. While helping in the school’s pre-K classroom, a teacher had welcomed and guided me as I gained confidence. One example of my efforts was with girls from Spanish-speaking homes who did not retain math lessons. Math is key for later school success, an issue in New York City and in this school, where many youngsters reach upper grades unprepared.
Noticing that one child was preoccupied about a new baby in her family, I developed a game: She and another child could “buy” objects that babies need, using printed images and play currency. Soon the girls and others were doing lots of buying, counting and adding. It encouraged practice, progress and complemented the teacher’s work with the class. The lesson: Support and guidance from the teacher and a volunteer’s ability to work intensively with just a few children made a big difference.
Other experiences, however, weren’t so positive.
Concerned that the school was missing opportunities to support its families, staff asked me to help parents appeal to the principal to reopen a toddler center where they could leave their children in order to attend classes in English as a second language (ESL). With better English, these parents, mostly recent immigrants, could provide more educational support.
But the principal expressed irritation that I helped. She told me that that she wanted to end ESL and worried that ESL and the school’s celebrations of its many cultures would alienate White parents.
In September 2017, as I approached the school, the assistant principal told me not to enter. I was one of about 20 volunteers who over years had developed constructive relationships with staff and students, and who had been trained and passed security clearances, but who were nevertheless dismissed.
I wrote the school’s recently installed principal. No response. Our city councilperson’s office shared the principal’s explanation: The school could not “ensure a secure environment for students” because the city’s volunteer support organization had folded. If security was the issue, however, why had nearby schools not also stopped using volunteers?
Puzzled and disappointed, I moved to another school. After several months, I received a call: I was not to return. Why? “Security concerns.” Me, a 73-year-old with a cane? Teachers in both schools protested my departure to their administrations, to no avail.
My experiences are not unusual.
For example, an acquaintance, the very enthusiastic grandmother of a child in the school where she volunteers, was assigned to the librarian, who had no idea what to do with her. She now sweeps and cleans. Another baby boomer was sent to teachers who had not been asked if they wanted help, and met hostility.
Carelessness about the management of volunteers is widespread. This is reflected in studies by the Corporation for National and Community Service as well as other organizations and helps to explain a continual decline in volunteering, especially among highly educated people. They attribute this to “a failure of organizations to adopt a ‘significant number of volunteer management practices.’”
In schools, often, leaders are more comfortable with parent volunteers. But with the opportunities from the expanding pool of skilled older adults and the pressing need to better prepare our children, it is worth considering baby boomers.
Individualized and small group experiences offer the most powerful learning—and are difficult for teachers to do with their classes of 18 or more children. Getting classroom volunteers up to speed takes training for school personnel and volunteers, but not a great deal.
Another consideration: There are many mature people of color who want to give back. Their presence would strengthen efforts to integrate largely White schools by providing non-White children with a face that looks like them.
Leaders set the tone and guide the use of resources. Because the relationship of volunteers to the school is informal and unpaid, thoughtful and proactive support is essential to get the most from these relationships. As my experience demonstrates, and research affirms, a skilled older volunteer with support from in a supportive school can make a big difference for children.