Volunteers in Adult Ed

In adult ed, there’s plenty of passion, tons of motivation, and certainly a lot of need. What there’s less of a lot of is money. One way to address this is with volunteers. In this post, I’d like to share some tips for bringing in and supporting volunteers, as well as some different roles volunteers can take on in your program.


Getting interested volunteers in your door is easier than you expect. Place a few standing ads on volunteermatch.org, idealist.org, and your program’s social media pages and website. Post a clear “job” description and call to action (“Email Carl for more info” or “Fill out an application at our offices”). You might not get flooded with responses immediately, but keep the ads out there and spread the word, and you’ll get a steady flow of applicants over time.

Another option is to partner with a college or teacher training program. Many such programs want to place their trainees into classrooms for a semester, and if you set up a strong partnership, this can mean regular batches of trained volunteers.


You’ll have to design an intake process that suits your program, but all processes will have some form of the following components:

  • Screening – This might involve only a simple interview or questionnaire, but in some contexts, even a criminal background check might be appropriate.
  • Orientation – You want to make sure potential volunteers know enough about your organization, your expectations, and the work they will be doing to decide whether this position is right for them. Put together a brief spiel (and ideally some brochures and literature) about your organization’s history and mission, target population, policies and expectations, etc.
  • Training As I discuss further below, tutor training is crucial to a successful volunteering program. This can be costly and time consuming, and you may not have the resources to do face-to-face trainings in-house, so look into alternatives.
  • Placement – Ideally, you’ll have a few different placement options for different kinds of applicants. Some will need more support, others more independence. Do your best to learn about volunteers strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, so that you can make the best placement possible.

Roles of Volunteers

Most often, adult ed volunteers are placed into one-on-one tutoring situations. This works, and for many it’s very successful: The student gets personalized attention, and the tutor gets the opportunity to see the impact of his or her dedication first-hand.

But this model is not without its drawbacks. Some volunteers would like a connection to a larger community. On their own, some tutors may feel unequipped to handle all the questions a student may have relating to the whys of grammar or the hows of pronunciation, for instance. Also, though we don’t talk a whole lot about efficiency in language instruction, it’s hard not to notice the inefficiency of the one-on-one model.

At our program, there are a few other roles tutors can take. Most of our tutors begin as classroom assistants, participating actively in conversations, modeling pronunciation, helping the teacher to monitor written work, and so on. They become an invaluable resource, and a major part of the classroom community, and they also have some time to build their confidence while watching a trained teacher in action.

Alternatively, if you have any volunteers with lots of training or teaching experience, small groups or even whole classes can be an option. We’ll often have a volunteer come in about a half hour before the end of class, then stay for an hour after class helping a group of students with extra conversation practice and homework. We have also had some success coordinating multiple volunteers to teach an entire class. There are in fact organizations that operate entirely on this model.


Volunteers need support, and this can be tricky from the administrative perspective. Time and resources are limited in most adult ed settings.

The strongest recommendations for volunteer support relate to training. Volunteers need a strong preservice training that leaves them feeling equipped for the classroom.This may seem obvious. It is also recommended that volunteers be given plenty of ongoing training and opportunities for professional development. Now, if your program is anything like mine, your volunteering program is entirely unfunded and there may simply not be enough resources available to put together the kind of training program you’d like to offer. Often, there are free training programs at other organizations that are open to all, and we encourage our volunteers to attend those.

I also try to regularly forward articles on language acquisition and pedagogy to volunteers (with their consent, of course, but these are almost always welcome!).

One of the other forms of support that my volunteers often seek is to be directed to teaching materials that are appropriate for what they are doing. Try to keep an organized library and give a little “tour” during orientation.

Have you had success with volunteers in your program? Please share how in the comments section, below!

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/volunteers-in-adult-ed/


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