Docent Educator Logo

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Fire a volunteer? Staff members hope never to confront a situation where they must ask a volunteer docent to leave. The very thought is nightmarish. But, sometimes, it is necessary. Steps can be taken, however, to minimize the likelihood that such a drastic measure might be needed. Among those steps are: clear and concrete declarations of departmental standards and regulations; appropriate “job placement;” frequent performance reviews and evaluations; open avenues for communication; and pre-determined grounds for dismissal.

An Ounce of Prevention

By making departmental expectations known to both new and continuing docents, an education department takes its first, big step toward preventing the need for dismissals. Open and effective communication will stave off many problems before they occur.

Education department standards and methods ought to be clearly, effectively, and tangibly communicated to all volunteers. The need for explicitness reinforces the usefulness of written contracts or other forms of agreements between volunteers and institutions. Such documents begin and guide an important conversation that should detail docent roles and responsibilities, institutional and departmental expectations, and learning opportunities and “perks.” Such written materials are important as both the staff and volunteers may wish to refer back to them. (No, it is not sufficient to discuss these issues orally. Only written documents reduce the potential for miscommunication and eliminate possible claims such as “No one ever told me that!”)

Among the many items that might appear in written recruitment materials and within the docent handbook are:

  • How much training time is required to become a docent?
  • How much touring time is expected of a docent once trained?
  • When is additional, periodic training available for further skill development?
  • What are the minimum requirements that must be met, annually, to be retained as a docent?
  • How are docents kept abreast of new or changing exhibitions?
  • What performance standards are docents measured against and when do evaluations take place?
  • Are there opportunities to receive individualized attention or assistance? What avenues for communicating with staff are available?
  • What is the appropriate route for airing concerns or complaints?
  • What are the programmatic regulations concerning attendance, absences, and substitutes?
  • Are accommodations made for voluntary absences, such as vacation travel?
  • What institutional benefits are conferred upon volunteer docents?
  • And, what are grounds for dismissal from the docent corps?

The Match Game

Many people who volunteer for museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, parks, and gardens do so because they want to learn more about the subject matter While this is a good reason for a volunteer to be affiliated with a particular institution, it does not finalize the decision of how that volunteer might best contribute. Registrars, curators, exhibit designers, preparators, and others use and need volunteer assistance, too. Good “job placement” is essential.

People who take volunteer positions want to be successful. Success begins by matching personal attributes to institutional responsibilities and, then, guiding people toward the appropriate volunteer opportunities. For instance, among the attributes most valuable to someone assisting a registrar might be orderliness and precision. While these qualities may be useful to a docent, of greater priority are such attributes as enthusiasm, flexibility, and verbal aptitude.

Prospective candidates for the docent program should be encouraged to think about their response to the act of teaching. While having a reserved personality and research-oriented nature might be terrific attributes for the more solitary pursuits of gaining knowledge, they are not, necessarily, a good match for the more extroverted responsibilities of an educator Does the prospective docent enjoy public speaking? Is she a good communicator? How does she feel about working with young people? How does she put her own knowledge to work? What is it about teaching that most interests her? Is she able to put aside preconceived notions and personal prejudices?

Some institutions are so eager for volunteers to fill their docent ranks that they pull everyone and anyone into their programs, hoping to mold their recruits into effective teachers later This reluctance to be more selective from the start can result in misunderstandings, tense relationships, disappointed or disaffected visitors, and volunteers who feel unappreciated and unsuccessful.

Evaluate Frequently

How do volunteers know if they are doing an adequate job? Unless they are provided with periodic reviews and evaluative feedback, volunteers have no true measure of their performance. Evaluation offers concrete opportunities to assess teaching abilities, to modify techniques, and to demonstrate improvement. Without the benefit of evaluations, dismissing a docent could seem arbitrary or even punitive.

Evaluations must be an essential component of every docent program. Any volunteer who wants to be invested with the responsibility and authority of teaching visitors should expect to have his or her performance reviewed and evaluated. Such evaluative critiques serve to maintain a level of quality incumbent upon public programs, especially those administered for school children.

Evaluations should be positive and constructive. They should also be frequent so that they become customary and lose the stigma that can be attached to such a process. Evaluations should be objective; they should result in information that helps docents hone skills, adjust teaching methods, and gain content knowledge.

The evaluative process should be a “two-way street.” Docents should be provided with ample opportunities and routes for assessing the guidance and training they receive. On specific occasions, the departmental chief and/ or institutional director should meet with the volunteers and learn their assessment of the supervision and direction the staff provides. (To understand more about instituting and conducting evaluations, re-read the Summer 1997 issue— Volume 6, Number 4—of The Docent Educator, which focused on the topic of “Evaluation. “)

Establishing a Dismissal Policy

The last thing a staff member wants to tell a volunteer is that there are grounds for dismissal. But, establishing a clear-cut policy for dismissing docents should eliminate the potential for confusion and bigger problems down the line. In addition, such a policy should greatly reduce any opportunity for, or appearance of, subjective or vindictive actions on the part of a supervising staff member.

Of the several behaviors that could result in the immediate dismissal of a volunteer from his or her docent responsibilities, physical or psychological endangerment of visitors tops my list. Any volunteer found to be intoxicated or similarly impaired while conducting public tours or programs must be dismissed from the roster immediately. While this might seem harsh, our visitors’ well-being and physical safety must come first.

An action that should result in eventual dismissal is methodical insubordination. Attempting to create change by continually denigrating an institution or its staff to the visiting public is inexcusable. Naturally, there should be ample ways for docents to vent their frustrations and to make recommendations to the powers that be, but burdening visitors with such stuff is unfair and unprofessional.

Refusing to recognize the institutional mission as pre-eminent or to adopt its preferred method of instruction might be another reason for a docent’s eventual dismissal. Volunteers should not be allowed to defy organizational policies and decisions. The results can be disastrous and often undermine programming. If allowed to continue unabated, such behavior usually leads to recurrent arguments and a fracturing of the docent corps.

Finally, if a volunteer’s performance simply proves that teaching is not his or her forte, that person should be advised of other volunteer positions within the organization. There is no dishonor in learning that one’s efforts would be better applied to a different set of responsibilities than teaching. If teaching in the prescribed manner is uncomfortable, a volunteer can assist in some other area of institutional activity. Should the volunteer truly want to remain part of an education department, he or she might gather reference and research materials from the library, assist with tour scheduling, or maintain supplies and equipment used for hands-on activities.

Parting of the Ways

Even though people voluntarily donate time and energy to a docent program, they still must conform to the rules, meet departmental standards, and serve as productive contributors to programmatic goals and activities. Not dismissing a troublesome or poorly performing volunteer usually leads to greater problems for all concerned.

Communicating expectations, conducting periodic reviews, and holding open discussions should minimize the need to remove someone from a docent program. If that need arises, however, an established written policy, with delineated grounds for dismissal, will be important. It will ensure that the dismissal will be viewed as objective, and may help both the volunteer and staff member reach such a decision mutually and agreeably.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 8-9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *