"Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
Music to a teacher's ears.
And seriously, when you hear these words from a parent, you need to be ready. All too often we eschew the help of others. It's easy to dismiss those offers with an "I've got it"—whether that's motivated by not wanting to inconvenience them, not wanting to inconvenience yourself with extra hands, or just feeling like you really. have. got it.
But you know what? It doesn't matter if you've got it or not. Or how you feel about their hands.
When a parent offers to volunteer or help out in your classroom in any way, you need to pounce for two reasons:
- Your load can always stand to be lightened.
- Parent involvement benefits you, your students, and your school.
So the next time the offer is extended, be ready. And in case you really think those extra hands would be a burden? Use the suggestions below to put parents to work for everyone's benefit.
1. Enlist parents as read-aloud volunteers.
Whether the literature of the moment is Goodnight Moon, To Kill a Mockingbird, or On Civil Disobedience, students of all ages can benefit from having chapters, sections, or entire books read aloud. Seriously. We explain why we think read-alouds are appropriate for high school students in "5 Things Every High School Teacher Should Know." And there's no rule that says that you, the teacher, need to be the one to do the reading.
Here's how to go about it. When you put the word out to parents that you're looking for volunteer readers, give them an idea of the kind of material you want them to read, and—most important—when the volunteers will be needed.
It could be that, as a high school teacher, you always make a point of reading the first chapter of a new work out loud so that you know everyone is starting the book at the same time and in the same way. If that's the case, it shouldn't be too hard to give parents an upcoming date and class period with a bit of notice.
For younger age groups, there may be a particular time slot every week—or even every day—that is dedicated to read-alouds. And that will make it even easier to schedule parents.
Depending on the parent volunteer's level of comfort with the material, you may be able to ask a parent to run through a quick list of discussion questions with students when the reading is done. Or, for a parent who surprises you with a wealth of literary knowledge, let them come up with the questions and lead the discussion on their own.
And will you just be twiddling your thumbs during this time? Sure, if that's what you need to be doing. Use this time for catch-up: commenting on student work, planning a future lesson, communicating with parents (ones who aren't currently reading aloud) via email, grading tests, and the like.
At times, you may need to help manage the classroom and keep students focused, but some of your volunteers might be quite good at keeping students engaged on their own. And of course, you could always try to have more than one volunteer come in at a time and share reading and management duties. Which means that not only will you have saved your precious vocal cords a strain—you'll have bought yourself some time for other key tasks. All while engaging parents and strengthening your classroom's bond with the community.
2. Have a parent maintain your class website or blog.
There are plenty of tech-savvy parents out there who could update a website or create a new blog post without batting an eye. The best part: this volunteer opportunity can be accomplished at any time of day. Some parents have trouble finding time to volunteer because of work conflicts. This position will give parents who can't come in during the 9-5 an opportunity to contribute outside of work hours.
But wait…what will they blog about if they don't visit your classroom during the day? And how can they update a class website without you having to spend hours prepping materials for them? After all, part of the reason to enlist parent volunteers is to lighten your load, isn't it?
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to provide content that won't create more work for you.
- Students can email stories, articles, and images to your volunteer webmaster. Yes, even if you teach math. Just give students five minutes at the end of class or 15 minutes once a week (or enlist some of your students who really like writing to do a little extra-credit work) and have them comment on what you've been working on, write about an upcoming class event or assignment, or take a picture of the board or something interesting in the classroom.
- Remember that the volunteer will probably have a student in your classroom who lives under their very roof. That student can act as a courier, bringing home documents that need to be scanned and posted.
- As mentioned above, your students can write about the goings-on in your classroom if you don't have time. Want some more in-depth info from an adult hand? Arrange for the webmaster (or even a whole different parent) to interview you or a student over the phone and write an article or explain an event.
- If you keep a digital calendar of class activities or upcoming units, you can share that with your webmaster. Your webmaster can also check out the school or district calendar to find upcoming events to write about on your page.
- You can use your site or blog to list parent volunteer opportunities, as well as to acknowledge volunteers as they contribute. What could be a better bonus for a parent than to see their name in lights? So be sure that either your or one of your students is ready to keep track of that info and pass it on.
There are numerous ways to create the information and get it where it needs to go, and once your site, blog, Tumblr, or Facebook page has been created, it will be easier for other parents to see what's going on in your room and get involved. Thanks a bundle, webmaster.
3. Invite parents to discuss the ways in which they use your content area in their everyday lives.
If you teach multiple content areas—as teachers in kindergarten, elementary, and some middle schools do—you can either have volunteers focus on one area, or simply have parents come in and talk about their livelihoods. This can be an extra big benefit for whichever topic your students are most likely to approach with a "when am I ever going to use this?" mindset. Learning about career paths and vocations—or even just how a certain topic can pop up in daily life—can always be beneficial for students.
If you decide to go the single-subject route, you can invite several parents at a time to talk about math, writing, or science in everyday life. Or, you can spread your volunteers out and have one come each week for a month or more. (Bonus: that built-in time everyone looks forward to when all can sit back and listen. Yes, you included.)
This tactic is a great opportunity for parents to share their knowledge with students and for you and your students to practice listening, being a good audience, asking questions, and simply enjoying meeting and learning about someone new.
Well, not new for the kid whose parent it is. But you get the idea.
4. Have parents help with regular tutoring sessions.
If you come in early, give up a prep period, or stay late to help one student, chances are three more will wander in requesting assistance. So why not enlist a few parents to help with the help? Schedule regular help sessions with students and invite parents to come in and act as tutors and homework helpers.
Some of your students' parents will have the requisite skills to help with content, even at advanced levels. Maybe Maxine's mom got a PhD in math and can lead a pre-algebra group for the advanced students in your fifth grade class. As for parents who don't feel comfortable with the material or would prefer not to tutor—hey, they can still tag along. They can attend the sessions and assist with photocopies, organizing materials, filing, supervising students when you need to step out, chatting with students who are waiting for help, or helping prep the classroom for the next day.
Parents can also help with these sessions by bringing in healthy snacks or water for students. Everyone learns better when stomachs aren't growling and glucose levels aren't dangerously low.
5. Ask a parent to set up a bulletin board for you.
New unit? New month? New season? New book? New concept? Tell parents what you have coming up and see if one or more of them is interested in doing a little advance research and setting up a bulletin board or a few learning center activities for you. Whether National Pi Day is approaching or you're getting ready to read Jane Eyre, it could be both helpful and informative to have a parent volunteer put together some information for you and your class to peruse.
Crafty parents may produce Martha Stewart-esque works of art that will both inform and beautify your room. But parents don't have to be particularly crafty to pull this one off. A Jeopardy!-style bulletin board could feature categories with answers on 3x5 cards that students can flip to find the questions. Other simple boards include a list of facts about Pi for that math class nearing Pi Day, a collection of travel brochures showing Brontë country for that class reading Jane Eyre, or a wealth of nature photographs to enliven a biology class. Parents can certainly get as creative as they wish, but there are numerous ideas that could provide you and your students with educational materials without requiring decoupage, glue gun, or origami skills.
But what if parents don't offer to help?
Don't wait for them to offer. It's a good idea to start seeking volunteers for your classroom whether parents have made the first step or not. Consider sending out a form early in the year seeking volunteers. On the form, list specific opportunities you know will be available, and also be sure to leave plenty of room for parents to list their skills and the ways they think they could help out.
You may also want to ask parents to list things they wouldn't be interested in doing. Some parents may prefer to spend all their time working with students while others might prefer to avoid student engagement and focus more on organizational or clerical tasks.
In terms of skills that could be helpful, the list is endless. Baking, sewing, woodworking, writing, illustrating, fundraising, speaking a foreign language, gardening, photography, musical skills, computer expertise, party planning experience—all could come in handy. And so could a slew of other talents you won't even realize could be helpful until you find out one of your students has a parent who possesses them. So be sure to ask. Even if it sounds weird at first, it could make your students' day—and lighten your load.
Where's the harm in that?