Volunteerism and Community Connection

In my short lived role as a middle-school vice-principal, one of my intentions was to actively encourage and support our faculty to engage and enlist our community at large. To offer and encourage opportunities to those professionals, artisans, technologies, and builders in our amazing community to come into our school or (even better) provide opportunities for our students to come into their places of work, inspiration, and passion. After two and a half years this outcome has not come to fruition.


Volunteer or Service Provider

More and more schools are opening their doors to their community in an attempt to leverage local expertise and wisdom to support the work that they are doing with their students. Quite often fiduciary responsibility and jurisprudence often trip up many good intentions. What exactly is a school volunteer? A parent certainly qualifies under this moniker. What about other people in the community that come to work with our students?

Photo 2016-10-12, 2 24 19 PM

A volunteer, so goes the elementary school definition, is someone who provides services for no financial gain in order to benefit another individual, group, or organization. The adult version might couch it as synonymous to altruism in action. We frequently ask our community members to assume role of volunteer when they host our students in their blacksmith shop, welcome them to their farm, or offer time to share knowledge on composting and vermiculture. But is this volunteerism?

The counter argument goes something like this: If community members really want to work with our students then they will do so as volunteers. To some this all or none stance appears to be outdated, short-sighted, and quite frankly, disrespectful. When we take the moral ground approach that it is a privilege to work with our students we are cutting off our collective nose in spite of our face. As school leaders, we are people with financial and familial committments to simply sacrifice time away from their priorities to volunteer time, resources, and expertise. And for very little (or in most cases zero) compensation. Class visit to the farm for two hours? No honorarium necessary (may a nice class-created thank you card). Working to prepare, plan, deliver services, provide equipment and expertise (including assessment) over several weeks? I think we may have gone deeper than a simple altruistic endeavour.

I find this rationale both hypocritical and unreasonable.

Let’s take a step back.

Passion-Based Learning Opportunity

Since September 2014, our students have had the incredible opportunity to choose and participate in deeper learning every Wednesday afternoon for two uninterrupted hours. Our Lifelong Explorations Program (LLE) offers passion-led, hands-on learning mostly by many of our teachers on staff (full disclosure: it also provides necessary prep time for other teachers). A pastiche of selections includes international cuisine cooking, woodworking, stitch-craft, fishing, photography, volleyball, outdoor recreation, geo-caching, makerspace, hockey, skateboarding, robotics, guitar, and yes, even capoeira. The Lifelong Explorations Program works simply because teachers lead with their passion, knowledge, and expertise. The sizzle sells itself.

Photo 2017-01-18, 2 05 11 PM

Fast forward to March 2016, when faculty were asked to provide other ideas of interest to add to Lifelong Explorations catalog. After two and a half years of fostering a makerspace and robotics LLE option, I looked at this call for proposal as an opportunity to shake things up for both me and our students. With an interest in both radio and podcasts, I offered to create an LLE that would give interested students the opportunity to explore an issue important to them. To this end, students would gather information and opinions from community (through interviews), and then create a fifteen minute podcast including music and a public service announcement. A great way to support the very socially active students explore and develop a great understanding of the issues that face our community and its members, and learn important soft skills like active listening, decision-making, collaboration, and leveraging technology to create change.

Enter Community Connection

And to show how serious this project was I boasted that I could get participant podcasts aired on our venerable community radio station, Kootenay Coop Radio (KCR) (of which I had been a member of since 2002). I wanted to make sure that if we were doing this that we needed to do it right. It needed to be a well planned and supported opportunity. Truth be told, I did not have any experience in creating or producing a podcast. I wasn’t even sure the school possessed the proper digital equipment to make production a reality. I was adamant about the importance of the participants having created something after twelve hours of work and commitment!

So, why not leverage the local expertise to make connections between school and community to help support interested students?

Enter Kootenay Coop Radio stalwarts and founding members, Adam and Terry, and their longstanding passion for radio, broadcasting, and yes…podcasts. Between the two of them they had over 35 years of broadcasting, radio, film, and multimedia experience. Initially, I hesitated asking them about becoming involved in the project. Why would they become involved? What would be in it for them? Oh, how pleasantly wrong I was!

Terry and Adam enthusiastically jumped on board and within a week of hatching the idea the three of us gathered for our first of several planning meetings to look at the feasibility of running two six-week (12 hour) courses. Neither one seemed concerned that each of the ThunderRadio sessions would contain groups of up to twenty-four middle school-aged students. Neither one of them flinched when I mentioned that assessment would need to be a component of any plan. If either one had any reservations about the challenges of providing an amazing learning opportunity for our students, it was buried deep below their excitement to “get on with it”!

Photo 2017-01-18, 2 18 47 PM

Moving Through the Plan

Details aside, after three short weeks, we had a program syllabus, lesson plans, equipment, and even an assessment rubric in place. Undoubtedly, an essential component of our discussions revolved around compensation. I knew that any effort towards creating something new and needs-specific would require energy and time. In my heart, I also knew that it was the right thing to do. But I also needed to share with the dynamic duo that both time and resources at the school level were scarce. And I had no allusion that funding would be necessary. I mean, how could we not compensate Adam and Terry for hours of preparation, not to mention allowing our students access and use of one of KCR recording studios and associated equipment? Right?

A Question of Compensation

After very deliberate consideration, together we came to an agreement that a one-time payment would cover their time (lost from other projects and work), and rental of KCR recording equipment and studio space. At the time, I felt very comfortable sharing the negotiated cost with my administrator. Last week (four weeks prior to the start of the first ThunderRadio session), however, a request was made by the new vice-principal (an individual whom I deeply respect), to postpone the course. The rationale? Cost. The (mis)understanding was that the role of Adam and Terry would operate as volunteers (there’s that word again) in their participation with ThunderRadio.

Every the negotiator, the VP was asked if we could run the program without any compensation this year. In my heart the answer was “no way!”, but my mouth uttered a barely inaudible “sure thing”. After the meeting, I knew that there was no way I could ask Adam and Terry to move forward with the project as volunteers (although something tells me that they possessed strong altruistic and would have said “sure”). Hindsight, now tells me that I should acted on that something

While remuneration is an important consideration, I think that it will be difficult to develop any significant long term relationships without recognizing the duo’s efforts and contribution to support our students. A bigger picture that may arise as we start to use the knowledge, expertise, time and energy to develop connections between our students and folks in our community. There will always be a cost involved as we build our own in-house capacity to offer and support student-participants. In a follow up meeting with administration, I shared the grand plan to help me to build my capacity to offer future ThunderRadio sessions armed with knowledge and confidence thanks to the collaborative work with Adam and Terry.

Full Steam Ahead

Perhaps I didn’t do a very effective job sharing my long term sustainability plan for ThunderRadio at the outset last spring. Lesson learned.

I am no longer naive. I know that schools are (still seemingly) strapped for cash to offer greater opportunities for their students. I have organized a multi-faceted plan to seek apply for public grants to run ThunderRadio next year including our parent advisory committee (PAC), local technology companies, services clubs like Rotary, and our own Columbia Basin Trust.

Yes, my goal to better engage our community and increase capacity for our students and teachers has not been fully reached.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s