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Not Getting Burned

For years museum educators felt neglected, the step- children of their profession. They struggled for recognition within their institution’s hierarchy and vied for precious budgetary resources. Education departments and their programs were considered of secondary importance to their institutions and were treated accordingly.

During the past 30 years, many of those perceptions changed. Education moved to the forefront of institutional agendas. Museums, and other such facilities, began to recognize that effective education was their best form of public relations, and that strong educational programming was their most direct route to increased funding, community support, membership, and public awareness.

Pressure on education departments grew. Programming expanded, and each success lead to even greater demand. Unfortunately, the resources devoted to education departments rarely increased in proportion to the workload. Education departments were expected to do more with the same limited staff, and to supplement their personnel needs with volunteers.

The need for volunteer assistance increased dramatically just at a time when the number of people available to volunteer began to decline. Changes in work patterns and demographics, along with increases in the number ot women entering and remaining in the work force, lowered the prospective volunteer pool. As museums, historic sites, zoos, gardens, and other such facilities scrambled to recruit more volunteers in order to keep pace with demands and expectations, some grew more likely to accept any “warm body,” rather than selectively screening people who were best suited to the type of work and the responsibilities.

Burn-Out Isn’t …

Volunteers who go through an elaborate screening process and who are well informed about the training, time demands, teaching methods, and other facets of being a docent usually screen themselves out if they discover that the time, energy, or activities are not suited to their lifestyle or personality. People who are pressured to join, however, may give it a try in spite of an awkward fit.

Volunteers who are not interested or happy being docents are not victims of burn-out. They just haven’t been placed in the proper role or capacity. There are many ways to assist museums and other such facilities; being a docent is only one of many ways to be personally involved.

Those people who wish to be docents must have an interest in, and aptitude for, teaching. Therefore, they must possess the appropriate demeanor and oral communication skills. When the “fit” is a good one, few volunteers leave because they are unhappy or uncomfortable.

Docents who leave because of circumstances beyond their control, such as relocating, job pressures, or child care needs, also are not burning out. There is a natural attrition inherent in any form of work, regardless of whether it is accomplished on a voluntary or paid basis.

And, docents who have served in that capacity for many, many years and who wish to find new challenges or tap into new personal resources are not burning out. They are growing, and everyone deserves the opportunity to change.

Burn-Out Is …

Volunteers who enjoy being docents, who teach effectively and who have enthusiasm for the work, may become victims of burn-out. Sometimes, staff rely too much on those who are interested and willing. Placing too many demands on “the good docents” can lead to burn-out.

It is essential that all docents share in the responsibilities and work load of the program. Though all things are rarely equal, too often staff report that they have a large number of docents on their roster, of which only a certain number actually tour on a regular basis. Discrepancies such as this are a recipe for burn-out.

Relying heavily on those who take their responsibilities seriously, and allowing others to get away with far less, is unfair and weakens the integrity of the program. The training, access to staff, and opportunities for professional growth are less meaningful if some people can receive them anyway without doing their fair share of the work.

Certainly, exceptional circumstances do arise in people’s lives, and programmatic flexibility is important. From time-to-time, docents will require a break or a hiatus to manage personal problems or simply to catch their breath. Providing volunteers with a prescribed route for obtaining a leave of absence is important. However, simply allowing some volunteers to do far less for the privilege of being a docent isn’t appropriate, leads to resentment, and places undue pressures on those who are willing to help.

Another cause of burn-out originates in a lack of control. Docents are responsible for guiding visitors through exhibits and, therefore, should be provided with a way to participate in the planning and evaluating of such exhibits. Their experiences and requests should be heard. Docents should also have some control over the objects they choose to focus on (while being responsive to visitor interests) and what age ranges they work with.

When a volunteer leaves “prematurely,” that is when departure is not attributable to fading interest or outside demands, burn-out may be the cause. To prevent a recurrence of such problems, exit interviews for docents are a good idea. Allow volunteers who leave your program to tell you the cause or causes. If you find that volunteers are reluctant to discuss reasons openly, invite them to submit them in writing. Naturally, confidentiality must be guaranteed.

In programs where the work load is shared, where good training is provided, and opportunities for success are maximized, burn-out is a rare occurrence. If, however, docent turn over is more commonplace, then an assessment of the docent program — from recruitment, through training, to responsibilities — is essential. Don’t be surprised if the cause is less that of “burn-out” and more from variables within the staff’s control.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Not Getting Burned,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 16-17.

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