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Awards that Reward and Build Community

Program elements contributing to docent satisfaction and longevity may run the gamut from the basic (a nametag and a place to hang your coat) to the more sophisticated (excellent training and mentoring) to the more ephemeral (maintaining a collegial and professional relationship between volunteers and staff). Yet all are part ot the balanced diet of a successful docent program.

Among the different strategies that keep docent motivation and morale high at the University of North Carolina’s Ackland Art Museum are a competitive selection process, thoughtful and substantive training, and on-going mentoring and support. Having docents and staff teach side-by-side, sharing ideas and experiences, also provides shared inspiration and emphasizes a collegial spirit.

Though we function as peers throughout much of the year, staff educators do take time to recognize the volunteer educators on whom our programs depend. Docents and staff alike look forward to the Ackland Art Museum’s annual Docent Recognition Breakfast. It not just the delicious, home-cooked breakfast made by the education staff, or the opportunity to look back on another The Docent Educator Summer 1 998 successful year of tours and gallery lessons. It’s the awards!

Planning for this informal and often humorous event extends throughout the year. Staff jot down ideas for awards, noting funny events and special contributions. New docents hitting their stride, experienced docents experimenting with new ideas or audiences — all have equal opportunity to receive awards as each year the awards are created anew. (With the exception of a few old favorite categories that tend to reoccur.)

Preparation begins in earnest the week before the breakfast as education staff decide on honorees and spend two days on the floor with construction paper, foam, crayons, glitter, fabric, glue, and paints to create the yearly array of awards. From the “Quick-Change-Artist” award to the “Emergency Exit” award, these home-made creations honor carefully chosen members of the Ackland’s 40 person docent corps. Just who will receive what award is a closely-kept secret. An air of expectancy precedes the event, and the turn-out at this annual event, to which all the museum staff is invited, is excellent.

During the breakfast, each award is presented by the education staff member who made it, while a carefully crafted story is told to honor the recipient and entertain the assembled audience. Our goal is to honor individual efforts that represent shared values or achievements. As educators, we know that awards, Like praise, should be used thoughtfully to point the way and to open the door to achievement for everyone. We realize the need to strike a balance among different types of contributions and to provide recognition to those who may need encouragement in any given year. And, finally, we are suckers for presenting awards that come attached to a really funny story.

This recognition event is in keeping with the collegial, nonhierarchical style of the Ackland’s docent program and supports our mission to be a “community of learners.” As you consider your own institution’s needs, you might think about some elements the educators at the Ackland believe have made this such a fun and successful event:

  • Significant commitment of staff time and energy — this says to our volunteers “you and what you do matters to us and the institution;”
  • Shared, public recognition of common values and contributions – even as we recognize specific individuals; and
  • Humor embodied in the themes and stories of the awards, offering a decided contrast to the stereotype of the art museum environment.

Even the best award program will have little effect if the key ingredients of a healthy program are not in place. However, an effective recognition program, one that is pleasurable for both volunteers and staff, is everyone’s “just dessert,” and can be a great addition to your menu.

Until recently, Ruth Slavin was Museum Educator at the Ackland Art Museum Of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Slavin, who now lives in Ann Arbor, Ml, is the recipient of the 1998 National Art Education Association Museum Educator of the Year Award for the Southeastern Division.

Slavin, Ruth. “Awards that Reward and Build Community,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 14.

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