50 Ways to Give & Gain from Volunteering with Schools

The following column originally appeared in a number of suburban and rural newspapers that are part of the APG of East Central Minnesota group.


Here’s 50 ways to give, gain from volunteering with Schools


Whether you can find one, 10 or 100 hours between now and next May, there are dozens of ways to help more students succeed.

And whether you are single, a parent, grandparent or retired, I hope you’ll pick one or more of 50 ways as described in this list from the Center for School Change:

Some people believe that to help a student or school, you have to go there. Nope. The list of “50 Ways” shows that’s not necessary. For example, you might:

  • Arrange a student internship or visit to your workplace, company or nonprofit (and help arrange for your workplace to pay for a bus so students can make this field trip).
  • Help chaperone a school’s field trip.
  • Help the school write a proposal for additional funding.
  • Help the school create a natural area near the school where students can study.

One of my all-time favorite volunteers never came to the school. He worked on a tugboat that went up and down the Mississippi River. I gave his wife the “50 Ways” list during an August conference. I also mentioned that I’d be teaching about the Mississippi River in the coming year. She talked with her husband, who arranged for his company to sponsor a wonderful spring day on the Mississippi, aboard that tugboat, for about 50 students.

Another parent turned from critic to great partner because of a wise principal in Monticello. The parent complained her child had been hurt on the school’s playground. The principal apologized, acknowledged the problem and asked the parent to help lead a playground reconstruction project. It was a complete success.

These examples show that you don’t have to make a regular commitment to a school, as is required for tutoring — which is on the list, but it’s only one of 50 options.

Some of the most satisfied volunteers I‘ve encountered are people who were asked to share a talent or skill. I remember, for example, a woman who volunteered in a school where I worked.

She was a terrific cook and helped youngsters under the supervision of a home economics teacher. She was not a native English speaker, but her son translated for her and was delighted when the teacher praised both his mom and him for their help.

Another parent wrote a column in a community newspaper about school activities. It was a big plus for the school.

Some people want to advocate for a school in other ways. One grandparent spoke at a school board meeting on behalf of the school. Another parent decided the district needed more options. He was elected to the local school board and helped create new district options.

Several of us in St. Paul are advocating for full public disclosure after, according to research by the Pioneer Press, the district’s facilities project went more than $170 million over its original budget.

And since Pioneer Press research showed the district had to pay thousands after women complained about sexual harassment by the facilities director, we’ve recommended a full independent audit. We’ll see what happens.

Over the last several years I’ve been mentoring (at their request) several young people. I’ve started saying we’re mentoring each other — I hope they are learning as much from me as I’m learning from them. It’s been among the most satisfying volunteer experiences of my life.

That’s what I hope each of you reading this experience. Well-designed volunteer experiences, regardless of your age, end up with the volunteer gaining every bit as much as the students or schools you’re helping.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org