New parents might not realize what’s coming at them when school starts. The school coffees, the first PTA meeting, and the Back to School nights are where you sign-up to volunteer at your child’s school.
One new mother went to her first PTA meeting and found that nobody wanted to head up the library volunteer program. People thought it would be a tedious job. The library had overwhelming mountains of books everywhere.
Working at the library isn’t easy. School librarians don’t just pick a random book to read to classes and then check out books. They actually teach a curriculum for every grade. They change their posters and displays to showcase holidays and historic months, like Women’s History Month. The school library may also house professional development resources for teachers, such as books that address helping children with anxiety or grief.
On top of this, librarians do checkouts, returns, re-shelving, repairing, and ordering books. It’s a big job, and a crucial one. An average elementary school is likely to have more than 1,500 transactions a week.
School libraries are not vanities. They are extremely important: they help instill good reading habits, provide access to information that kids need, and make school fun.
“When the librarian would read a story, there was not one child who wasn’t engaged. It is so nice to see kids in the land of imagination without pencil and paper," said one mother who chaired the school library volunteers.
The library volunteer program had always been somewhat mismanaged in this suburban Connecticut school. It consisted of long, two-hour shifts and distracted parents who chatted with their own children and other parents instead of applying themselves to the many tasks at hand. Parents would drop out or not show up, leaving the librarian to help entire classes of young children find books of interest and get them checked out within a very limited time.
Enter the library chair. To start, she needed bodies. She spoke at the PTA meeting and requested four volunteers per class from each room parent.
One hour shifts were arranged on a twice a month schedule, which worked out to 20 hours a school year. The two-parent shifts (problem: chatting parents) were changed to single parent shifts. If possible, volunteers worked when their children came to the library, which made it easier to recruit parents. They had more of a commitment to their shift because their own children were expecting them to be there.
Volunteers transformed the library experience for all classes. Before the program, the younger kids would occasionally run out of time before they could check out new books. Plus, if their books from the previous week were not in the system, they couldn’t take out a book. Younger students would need help finding books that piqued their interest, while older kids would clamor over the series they loved. The volunteer program provided an adult to streamline this process and make sure everyone got something interesting to read.
VolunteerSpot was used to create a schedule. It sent automatic reminders to the more than 70 volunteers. If parents couldn’t make their shift, they were tasked with finding a substitute. If they couldn’t find someone, they let the librarian and library chair know, and other people pitched in.
“We understood sick kids and plumbing disasters and worked around it," said the chair. They winnowed the stacks of books by prioritizing returns and re-shelving. Once a semester, the volunteers had a coffee date and did a “shelf-reading" to make sure all the books were in the right place. The library was tuned up and running well.
As the program became more organized and effective, it also became more popular. Busy parents appreciated the efficiency. Often volunteers drop out when they think things are disorganized.
The PTA realized they had a legion of very capable volunteers in the library and recruited parents for other positions. Veteran library volunteers were given priority schedules. The library went from unfilled posts to the most coveted gig at the school. The library chair would start getting requests from volunteers in the spring to help out for the following year. Emails would continue all summer long.
“I had to turn away a lot of people."