As an education program coordinator at Chicago Cares, I often receive emails from volunteers who are interested in signing up for a science program but have reservations. “Should I review math and science concepts before the project?” Others feel hesitant to volunteer for an art program, worried that their skills aren’t refined enough.

Contrary to popular belief, however, we aren’t looking for Einsteins or Rembrandts to be education volunteers or leaders. Instead, what we’re looking for are individuals who are enthusiastic, flexible, and come prepared to learn.

The Chicago Cares education team has designed curriculum that introduces academic and social concepts through activities that are simple to complete, but are still exciting and engaging for students and volunteers. When we look for a leader to take charge of a program, we don’t necessarily need someone who’s an expert in the field; whether it’s drama, sports, or computers. We find that our most successful leaders, no matter what the subject is, follow the tips below. Volunteers can also use these suggestions to help strengthen a project:

  • Review the curriculum beforehand or try the project at home. Our projects may be easy to implement, but they can definitely be difficult if not reviewed and planned ahead of time. Read over the lesson in advance and make sure you have all the materials you need. Not sure if the science experiment will work? Try it at home beforehand! That way you’ll be confident when you demonstrate the project to the students.
  • Arrive early. Probably the easiest thing to do to ensure a successful project is to arrive at the site early. This gives you plenty of time to set up for your project and welcome any new volunteers as they arrive.
  • Be friendly and welcome volunteers. Make sure volunteers feel comfortable when they arrive. Show them where to leave their things. Tell them what you’re doing for the day. If they arrive early, invite them to help you set up the project.
  • Introduce volunteers and students. When it’s time to begin the project, don’t just jump right into the activity. Take time to let the volunteers introduce themselves to the students and don’t forget to have the students introduce themselves to the volunteers.
  • Be enthusiastic and encouraging. Kids might not jump for joy over multiplication tables, but they certainly won’t get excited about a subject if their leader isn’t excited about it. Turn math problems into a competition, or have students act out the story they just read. Keep the program exciting, and be ready give advice and encouragement when a student is struggling to be creative.
  • Improvise when something doesn’t go right. Activities don’t always go as planned. Maybe the oil pastels were missing or the grape didn’t float in the middle of the glass of water like it was supposed to. Be ready to think on your feet. Use crayons instead of pastels; use a flopped science experiment to let the students hypothesize about what went wrong. Learning is all about making inquiries, and getting students to ask questions and find solutions is one of the best things you can do for their critical thinking skills.

Whether you’re a leader or a volunteer at an education project, be confident, even if you’re engaging in a new subject area. It’s your interactions with students, not your skills, which really make the difference.

Today’s post is from Education Coordinator, Martha Renken.