Start Early: Teaching Students about Volunteering, Not Simply Doing It

By Susan J. Ellis

The subject of what children and teenagers know about volunteering – and what we can do about educating them differently – keeps cropping up for me.  Carol Weisman’s new book, Raising Charitable Children, does a wonderful job of discussing the issue.   Then, two weeks ago, I gave a short talk at the annual summer camp of Spark the Wave, a youth-led organization devoted to “empower teens to be better volunteers.”  I opened my presentation by asking the group of 14- to 17-year-olds, “what’s a volunteer?”  No surprise – their responses were as narrow and limited as you would expect, centering largely on “helping people in need.”

There have been remarkably few elementary or high school curriculum materials to 1) first educate teachers about the subject, and then, 2) help them teach their students about the historical and current role of community involvement by citizens.   I am not talking about encouraging young people to do volunteering, which is certainly happening quite a bit.  The problem is often that this exhortation (sometimes even a controversial requirement) to volunteer is not put into any meaningful context.

What Could Be Taught?

Here are a few of my ideas for incorporating an awareness of volunteering as a natural part of student learning.  (Please share yours.)

Citizen Action is “Volunteering” - A huge step forward would be simply identifying citizen action as “volunteering” when discussed in the classroom.  For example, in the United States and elsewhere, history and social studies curriculum teach about “movements” – the peace movement, the civil rights movement, etc.  What’s a “movement”?  It’s the cumulative effect of the efforts of countless citizens on behalf of a cause; in activities such as protest marches, lobbying government officials, speeches to change public opinion, etc.; done above and beyond what people do to earn a living.  In other words:  it’s the impact of volunteers

It would be illuminating to comment that no one gets paid to rebel.  Every revolution begins both with the action of one person and with the support of people willing to risk all for their beliefs:  volunteers.  It might also be nice if teachers noted that the “right to assemble” and the other rights such as free speech are integral to lawful citizen action, even it is aimed at changing the status quo and involves protest.

Famous Volunteers - I would love to place colorful identification stickers on any children’s library biography book that describes the life and accomplishments of someone famous who, at least at some stage, did their work as a volunteer.  For the US, my list would start with Benjamin Franklin (who really is the father of all things volunteer in colonial America) and such notables as Paul Revere, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, and Margaret Sanger, and go on to include hundreds more.  I suspect the same could be said for pioneers in every country.

The Nonprofit Sector - Another subject largely missing from most curricula is the nonprofit sector in general.  I never heard a single syllable about nonprofit organizations all the way from Kindergarten through graduate school.  Twenty years ago I did a survey of 300 elementary school children for United Way of America, to see what they knew about the United Way.  Common responses?  “It’s an airline.”  “It’s where countries of the world come together.”  Branding confusion aside, most young people only recognize for-profit businesses and government. 

Do you have curriculum content ideas?  Share them with the rest of us at the end of this Hot Topic.

Who Should Educate the Educators?  

Curriculum change must come from teachers inside the school system but, as the people with the most at stake in changing student understanding of the role of volunteering in our society, volunteer management practitioners can be vocal advocates.   I can see three ways to have an impact on educators:  one-by-one, district-by-district, and through the Schools of Education.

Do you have any teachers as volunteers in your program now?  How about relatives of teachers?  Friends?  The point is to sit down and talk to teachers as individuals about what, if anything, they teach to their students about volunteering and what learning materials they would love to have.  From such conversations, a number of possible strategies may emerge, probably through the support of a Volunteer Center or DOVIA.  The first step would probably be a steering committee of teachers interested in this, who would work for change from inside the schools and request/demand the materials they need to teach about volunteering effectively.

Approach key personnel at the school district level:

  • The curriculum development department
  • The history or social studies department
  • The teacher in-service training staff
  • Those who are running the “community service” program for students
  • School librarians

You are trying to open one door to find a collaborative partner who will advocate for teaching about volunteering.  But don’t start this if you are not willing to stay the course and help produce the curriculum materials – another reason why this is a collective effort for a DOVIA or Volunteer Center.

Schools of Education
Here is where we might find an academic interested in actually writing some teacher’s guides, developing online resources, and producing audio-visual materials about volunteering and its impact.  If someone with a PhD and on the faculty of a teacher-education university proposed this subject, his or her colleagues will listen.  So might funders.  Then we’ll have to work on getting the professor to accept advice from us.  (The challenges never end!)

Learning by Experience

Almost thirty years ago, the Kellogg Foundation funded Ivan Scheier’s National Information Center on Volunteerism to develop an elementary school curriculum about volunteering.  The problem was that it had to be purchased for a few hundred dollars (it was a big box of materials) and few in the education community understood its value or championed the cause.  Twenty years ago, a local DOVIA in Pennsylvania worked on a project for their own school system, for which they created slides and lesson plans for teachers to use in the 4th to 6th grades (Energize even sold the set in our catalog for a few years).  But again, we learned that it’s hard to “superimpose” curriculum materials into the schools from the outside.

  • Do you know of any school programs teaching about volunteering?  How did they start?  How might they spread?
  •  What  ideas do you have for what could be taught?
  • What do you think of the idea of approaching volunteers in your program who are teachers and see what they would be interested in doing about such curricula?
  • What role might youth organizations have either in educating their young members about volunteering or in being advocates for the schools to teach this subject?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint