My decision to resign my decent position lit the Camp Tyler nature trail was dictated by the development of chronic allergies. Simply put, the woods and I no longer enjoyed each other’s company. Not all decisions to leave a cherished and rewarding place within the museum community are as clear-cut, however. With every new tour year, senior docents must face the choice of staying or going. No one wants to outstay his welcome or continue in a position where he is less than effective. The following questions may help in knowing when that time has come.
- Am I still physically able to do the job?
In my case, of course, the answer was “no” and the decision, while painful, was unequivocal. Allergy medicines made me too drowsy to be an effective guide, especially since the woods can be a dangerous place and a guide needs to be constantly alert. Without the medicines, I was a re-deyed, red-nosed, sneezing machine. Not exactly the ideal docent!
As we age, of course, other physical limitations may interfere with our effectiveness. If you find yourself constantly having to ask visitors to repeat their questions, or if their puzzled looks indicate that you’ve answered a question they didn’t ask, perhaps a hearing loss is creating problems with your tours. If your after-the-tour regimen includes a day in bed, perhaps arthritis is turning pleasure into pain.
However, before you decide that you are physically unable to continue as a docent, take the time to do two very important things. First, make an appointment with your doctor for a complete physical check-up. Perhaps your “ailment” isn’t an age-related guarantee, and some modification of diet, exercise, medication, or assistance can keep you in the docent pool for a few more years. Next, ask your docent supervisor if she will observe one of your tours and give you an honest assessment of your physical abilities to do the job. If there are problems, perhaps the museum can make some adjustments in your schedule or your tour route. Perhaps seating can be provided in the galleries, not just for you, but also for others who may wish to observe the collection from a more comfortable position. If none of these options help, ask your supervisor to find a non-touring position where the physical challenges aren’t so great.
- Do I look forward to every tour as an interesting challenge?
One of the great things about a volunteer “job” is the fact that you are volunteering to do it! That means that you can “un-volunteer” when the job is no longer rewarding. Your ability to pay the bills or hold your head up in the community does not depend on your docent position. You took on this role because it was fun, because it offered you opportunities for personal growth and learning, and/or because it was a challenge. When any of these elements are missing, it may be time to move on. When the little inside jokes about the visitors or the staff become less funny than mean, you might want to think about finding something else to do with your free time.
Before you decide that your docent job is more “job” than it could be, you should take a good look at your tour routine. Are you giving the same lecture that you gave when you first entered the docent corps? If the staff needs to find you during one of your tours, do they know exactly which painting you will be standing in front of at 9:45 a.m. each Tuesday? You may find that you can re-energize your interest in your docent assignment by simply re-vamping your tour. Have you tried some of the new techniques the education director keeps introducing at each docent meeting, or do you customarily slough them off because you’ve “never done it that way.” If you’ve “always” given tours for elementary children, why not observe and then try a tour for a different age group. If the weekly trip through the galleries has become a weekly “grind”, why not ask to be assigned as a substitute or for special events only. But, if you’re tired of the institution where you volunteer, if none of these “pick-me-ups” actually pick you up, you probably need to resign before your tour visitors notice your stagnation.
- Have I gone from being “Docent of the Year” to doing nothing right?
From the very beginning, you received praise from the staff and other docents for your tours, your work ethic, and your willingness to mentor new docents. Letters from school children and grateful teachers often mentioned your name. You were frequently asked to “model” your questioning techniques, the transition elements of your tour, or the way you were able to maintain discipline with only your aura of authority. Lately, however, there have been a few criticisms, or, worse, silence from those who used to compliment your work. If your institution is one of the fortunate ones that have implemented peer or staff evaluations processes, you may be imagining things. If your techniques were really slipping, the evaluations would have caught them in time for you to make the necessary corrections. If no such evaluation exists, you will need to ask for help — help in discerning whether or not your less-than-stellar performance is real or simply a figment of your imagination.
If, indeed, you determine that your tours are not as good as they used to be—if you have “lost your edge”—^you must decide whether or not you can and will improve. A valued docent such as yourself deserves the help of the education staff and other docents in locating and correcting errors of technique or content so you can get back to the top of your game. If no help is available, or if you simply don’t want to make the effort, it may be time to develop a new interest outside of the museum. Why wait to go out on a sour note? The old show business adage is still true: It’s always best to leave the audience wanting more.
- Am I staying for all the wrong reasons?
While it’s true that we began volunteer work in a particular institution because it was fun, because it offered opportunities for personal growth and learning, and/or because it was challenge, we may find that we are staying for entirely different reasons. Maybe that weekly trip to the museum is just a habit. . .and maybe we have no difficulty at all in “calling in sick” when a better offer comes along. Maybe we’re lonely and we walk through our tours each week just to have the opportunity to interact with another human being, even if the interaction isn’t as interesting as it used to be. Maybe, after all these years, we’d hate to give up the “perks”— the training sessions that are still fascinating, the field trips and parties, the good friends we’ve made, the discount in the gift shop.
Fortunately, many museums have programs for docents who want to retire from touring but don’t want to give up their connection to the museum community. “Emeritus Docent” programs, or status, offer long-time docents the option of continuing their affiliation with the docent program to which they’ve given countless volunteer hours without actually touring. Emeritus docents are still available for research projects, for teaching, for consultation if they desire, but they no longer give tours. They’ve earned the right to retire, with the dignity their long commitment deserves. They are still invited to the parties. They’re still welcome to join the field trips and the gallery talks. They’re still on the mailing list.
If your answers to these questions were: Yes Yes No No you have nothing to worry about. Whatever your age, you’re still providing a valuable service for your institution and its visitors. If, however, your answers were reversed, it may be time to discuss moving into the Emeritus Docent program. And, if your museum doesn’t have one. . .well, your last good deed as an active docent will be to start one!
Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor
Littleton, Jackie. “Knowing When to Go,” The Docent Educator 12.3 (Spring 2003): 16-17.