Academic journal article Adult Learning

Volunteer Voices: A Model for the Professional Development of Volunteer Teachers

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Volunteer Voices: A Model for the Professional Development of Volunteer Teachers

Article excerpt

The term volunteer, once widely associated with religious do-gooders, no longer characterizes the institution. Today volunteerism covers a much broader spectrum of activities than when the Volunteers of America (1896), for example, acted as auxiliary to churches (it was started as an offshoot of the Salvation Army). Increasingly volunteers are young and have full-time jobs in other fields (Schlusberg & Mueller, 1995).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in English as a second language (ESL) programs. The Adult Education Program at the YWCA Princeton in New Jersey is one such program that uses volunteers to help achieve and sustain a high level of success in educating adult learners as well as integrating these non-native speakers into the larger community. The YWCA has long been committed to maintaining and enhancing the excellence of its programs through various initiatives. Using volunteer instructors is one of the initiatives that has had a major impact on the effectiveness of the Adult Education Program in ESL. As community-based programs struggle to provide needed services with shrinking funds and as demand for instruction often outstrips the supply, the role of volunteers in teaching adult ESL may be expanding (Schlusberg & Mueller, 1995). The Adult ESL Program at the YWCA Princeton helps volunteers get acquainted with the culture of the community as well as with the mission of the program. It addresses issues of adult ESL education in frequent workshops, round-table discussions, and phone contact with a faculty member who serves as mentor and advisor. The voice of the volunteer is listened to as well as put to use in developing a model for the professional development of new instructors.

The Role of the Volunteer

An important aspect of adult ESL education is the recognition of the wealth of knowledge and experience that teachers contribute to the program, and this also includes the volunteer instructors. But before we look at the role volunteerism plays in adult ESL instruction, perhaps we need to ask: what is a volunteer? The word comes from the Latin voluntari(us), meaning willingness or inclination (Stein, 1993). To volunteer means to give, bestow, or perform without being asked. A volunteer is a person who performs a service by free choice. Many volunteers in ESL education act as a tutor, a person employed to instruct another in some branch of learning. In the olden days, tutors had the guardianship, instruction and/or care of their students (from the Latin root tut(us) meaning to guard or protect). They were used to train, school, or discipline as well as to admonish or reprove. Nowadays, a tutor is more often than not simply a teacher without institutional connection who instructs or assists students in preparing for exams, especially privately.

If this is the scope of the tutor, then what is the role of the volunteer in education? The Adult ESL Program of the YWCA Princeton believes one of the factors contributing to the effectiveness of its organization is the volunteer staff (Ohrel, 1998). The volunteers are what make their program unique, according to the assistant director and volunteer coordinator of the program (L. Sandburg, personal communication, April, 1998).

Yet volunteers are not unique in adult education. In fact, the majority of programs in the U.S. that provide adult education use volunteers. Of approximately 800 adult literacy programs surveyed in the 1980's, about half used volunteers in school-based programs, while nearly all of the community-based programs used volunteers (OERI, 1986). And like other adult literacy programs, the YWCA's ESL program in Princeton uses volunteers in the following capacities: one-to-one tutoring, teaching small groups, serving as teacher's aides, and teaching classes (Ohrel, 1998). Most of the ESL programs (96%) that use volunteers provide training for them, with 86% providing an average of 13 hours pre-service training for new volunteers. …

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