How to volunteer for online teaching

Got skills or time to share? Thinking about volunteering to teach or otherwise support young people while they are studying at home? Here are some tips to make the best use of your time and keep everyone safe.

First, a quick checklist
– Note how much time you have – be realistic, and don’t overpromise (particularly if you’ve agreed to cover teaching or provide lessons/instruction/materials).
– What resources have you got? Can you deliver/make what audiences need?
– What training have you had? If you haven’t worked with children and teens before you may want to learn about their specific age-related needs before proceeding to offer training/materials.
– Do you have the right equipment to connect with audiences in the ways that suit them best?
– What indications do you have that people want/need your help?
– When do they want your help and in what format?
– Are you the right person to give this support? How do you know this?
– What professional organisations/charities exist that can match your skills with schools and families?
– Do you need any additional checks or assessments prior to offering your skills/resources?
– Are there other colleagues already offering remote teaching you can learn from and share tools, or offload experiences if needed?

Next, read these tips for safe and responsible remote teaching/outreach
Work directly with educational/outreach organisations, for example Skype A Scientist or via charities, youth groups or schools who’ve specifically asked for assistance. Please don’t approach schools asking to help out during the pandemic if you have no current connection with them; they will be focused on providing remote teaching and will not connect adults they don’t know with children.

If you are going to work with children and teens remotely it should be with oversight/supervision from aforementioned organisations and you may need to be DBS checked for the UK, or equivalent depending on the country you’re based in.

If you have knowledge of how to deliver online teaching in fast/accessible ways offer these skills to schools. Now is not the time to deliver a lecture on the abstract issues of online work, but you could be useful if you talk organisations out of wasting precious time/money making new content or using platforms their pupils and staff working from home are not going to be able to use. Where possible look to learning programmes operating in low income countries who know how to get remote work done while facing numerous connectivity and accessibility barriers.

If you are creating content (videos, cartoons, blogs, downloadable workbooks, podcasts etc) ensure it’s appropriate and useful for schools, charities, youth groups and/or parents to use. Make it clear how the content you’re passing along fits with different parts of the curriculum and is age appropriate. Check your content is inclusive and accessible. And ensure if you allow commenting on your content it is moderated stringently, or better still disable it for the moment. You don’t want young people being bullied or groomed via comments. Equally if any work you’re offering is text based you will need a system of moderating comments so plan your time accordingly and have a clear explainer for audiences to follow so they know any rules for engagement (if you’re working with/through organisations they should have their own instructions you and those you work with should follow).

Take requests from schools, charities and families to locate or create materials – noting and delivering to different formats and platforms audiences are using.

Stick within your field of expertise/speciality. Consult the curriculum to see where your work fits and at what level.

Do not question, contradict or change work set by schools. Your role here is to offer additional materials/resources and be a cheerleader for teachers who are doing a difficult job under novel and stressful circumstances. If you spot any errors or causes for concern point it out privately to the relevant teacher.

You will have key knowledge in specific areas and access to materials and ideas that can enhance or enliven online/distance teaching during lock downs/isolation. But if you are not a school teacher remember there will be key skills and curriculum knowledge you don’t possess. Watch and learn from teachers/schools and be guided by them. This also applies if you are wanting to support Further Education (College) or Universities. You might be a researcher or teach in a university but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything about a new form of learning or another subject area. ‘Stay in your lane’ is always good advice.

Lots of people know stuff. Many of them know more than you. Look for those people and amplify their work before deciding you can teach/create/share ideas that are new to you. Study yourself if there’s a topic you’d like to teach/explain/engage with in the future. You will be way more useful promoting talented people and sourcing resources/signposting to help. Everyone is under pressure now, we can avoid wasting time and resources by pooling resources rather than being competitive.

If you’re someone who already has a lot of influence it’s important to be humble at this time. Instead of deciding what is needed, consult, listen and prepare what is wanted. Use your influence for good rather than becoming a distraction or undermining the work schools are doing. If you don’t know whether what you’re offering is exactly what schools need it’s a good sign you need to pause, consult, and reflect.

Prioritise diversity. Children and teens at home will be diverse in terms of learning needs, disability, race, income, family circumstances etc. A procession of well-intentioned white middle-class people or resources that only feature white, middle class, heterosexual/nuclear families is too limited. Put yourself forward if you’re a minority qualified to support specific subject areas; amplify people you know who will be great/diverse role models; source and signpost to tools and materials that have diverse hosts and include different languages (including sign language and captioning). Don’t assume minority resources and speakers should be appealing to minority pupils (although they certainly are vital role models). Or that minorities are responsible for sharing diverse resources. All children benefit from learning from people and resources that aren’t just white-folk focused; and all of us have a duty to embed this into our work and materials. Be aware that families you’re interacting with are going to be diverse. Do what you can to keep resources free/low cost and limiting additional incurred costs (e.g. expensive kit for experiments).

Parents may have requests from you for tutoring which again needs to enhance not detract from school based teaching programmes and should never undermine or sideline school teachers. If you don’t know what schools are teaching, find out, then match your resource sharing accordingly. Ideally tutoring should be done in collaboration/liason with schools. If you plan on tutoring long term consider joining a professional body.

Be mindful there are people who make their living as tutors supporting schools, particularly for pupils who are excluded or unable to attend school. Be very careful not to undermine their businesses and respect their experience and skills. Again you aren’t planning to replace existing forms of education, only enhance materials and support educators.

If you’re used to doing lots of school outreach in the form of in-person (offline) talks, shows, assemblies or events, remember online is a different model and you will need to practice and adapt your usual outreach work. This means more than just filming yourself doing your usual talk or putting slides online. Again working with organisations that are experienced in online outreach will assist you.

Keep teaching materials, conversations, feedback etc age appropriate and transparent – that means anyone directly involved in what you’ll be offering is able to see it. Before sharing anything with pupils you should have had it peer reviewed by colleagues and preferably approved/assessed by any organisations you will be working with. Be willing to accept feedback if what you have created needs changing or cannot be used if it isn’t relevant, doesn’t fit the educational needs of your audience, or doesn’t fit safeguarding requirements.

If you haven’t worked with children and young people and their families before take advice from professional bodies you’re a member of, your university, or other experienced colleagues who do this kind of outreach regularly.

Keep all interactions with young people boundaried and ensure you follow safeguarding rules. More information can be found from Gov.UK

Use professional channels to communicate and keep communications via families and schools or other platforms. If you are arranging online teaching sessions, phone calls etc do it via parents/teachers. Vulnerable children need special care to avoid potential exploitation. You may mean well, but if you allow for private chats, undermining other adults in their lives (including teachers/parents), or telling them to keep secrets or share in-jokes, other adults that have less kind motives than you could also use these approaches to groom them.

If you don’t know what safeguarding means or covers and you’re working with age groups 4 – 16 (and really 16- 18 years too). If a young person needs help signpost them to sources of care (see next paragraph), don’t try and fix it yourself. Working with/through organisations for outreach, education, youth work is a good way to ensure you are transparent, professional and boundaried – and have someone to ask if any requests come in or issues get reported that you aren’t sure about.

Young people and their families are understandably anxious about COVID-19. Note they may assume you have medical or scientific knowledge you don’t possess. Refer all with questions to reputable sources and to follow safety advice on handwashing, social distancing etc. Please feel free to familiarise yourself with and signpost to these sources for parents to talk to children about their mental health, advice for teens and their wellbeing, and help for parents to give themselves self care. Do not offer medical or therapeutic advice; or give any diagnoses (or contradict diagnoses). This is particularly important if you have a PhD as your audiences may believe you are clinically trained (and if you are clinically trained you’ll know to direct people to their healthcare provider).

If a child, teen or young adult you’re teaching online reveals they are at risk then you should alert their parents (unless the parent/family is the danger), and their school, and/or speak to an organisation like NSPCC, The Children’s Society or Childline (UK) to get more information on what to do. (Young people can contact Childline direct for advice too).

If you’re volunteering to teach remember to be clear what you can offer and what other commitments you need to honour. Online support teaching/outreach can easily become overwhelming so be mindful not just of your skills limitations but also your time. Remember to look after your physical and mental health.

Ideally chat with others volunteering to create educational materials or online education so you can swap materials and also discuss your notes on how your sessions/programmes have been received. Revising and updating as needed. Kids, teachers and parents can give feedback too.

And remember, have fun, get creative, share what you know. Love what you do!

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