I received much mail in January from retired teachers, journalists and others who liked my suggestion that school districts use them as volunteer writing instructors. I said just 10 minutes a week of editing by pros could energize student prose.
Like many of my ideas, this one went mostly nowhere. But there is hope. Two retired English teachers have told me of their success editing essays in a few classrooms. They have also solved the mystery of why volunteers like them are rarely invited to help.
Cathy Colglazier, who taught English in Fairfax County, Va., said when her editing has gone well, that “it is a dream volunteer job for a retired English teacher or former writing adult. I show up once a week, kids dropping in for individual tutoring on a first-come, first-served basis. The hour of meeting with students flies by, sometimes with an agreement to meet later on Google Docs to complete the essay polishing.”
“When it has worked poorly — too often — I sit in a room reading my emails,” she said.
“The lack of buy-in is not because of the Common Core or people who don’t want to teach well,” Colglazier said. “It is often because of the excessive demands on teachers. In some situations, I am just one more program to organize, check off, make happen. Volunteers are usually helpful, but there are aspects that make their use time-consuming, even tedious — security clearances, arranging rooms in which to meet, choices of which students to attend, and last-minute adjustments because of special schedules. It is not always easy to work in volunteers to a school day. It takes a dedicated classroom teacher willing to take a leap of faith that the effort will prove helpful.”
Colglazier said she and Phyllis Fleischaker, retired from English teaching in the District and Montgomery County, were working at a D.C. school when they thought they were on the verge of getting that system to name a volunteer coordinator to bring in more retirees.
Fleischaker even had a conversation with Kaya Henderson, who was then D.C. schools chancellor. But the chancellor resigned, and no volunteer program was established. “So we just forge ahead ourselves with individual teachers and counselors,” Colglazier said.
Public and private schools will extol partnerships with local businesses, universities, community associations and academic experts, but this rarely goes further than accepting donations and equipment. Time is short. Demands on teachers and administrators are huge. They find it easier to use parent volunteers, particularly in elementary schools. But bringing outside experts into middle or high schools, even after the final bell, is often one more headache they don’t need.
This is true even if the volunteers could significantly elevate learning in a subject — writing — that most schools do not teach well.
Some schools have had volunteers help with a particularly intense need: helping students craft essays for college admission or other competitions. Colglazier said such work has meaning for her. It allows her to “even the playing field for young writers, as I have been painfully aware over the years of the inequity in my classrooms,” she said. Some students have parents or paid tutors to assist them and others do not.
She said some Fairfax County middle schools with impoverished students are asking her to conduct writing workshops on the essays needed to apply for the district’s famous magnet, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. She said she doesn’t know whether she can help eighth-graders get into TJ, but “worst case is that the young students just get more writing instruction — a nice side benefit, to my mind.”
The power of face-to-face editing is great. That is how I learned to write. I think there is room for more volunteers to bring this gift to students, as long as the retirees mesh with each school’s rhythms.