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Voluntary Professionals

Museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, gardens, libraries, and parks recruit cadres of volunteers. Volunteers are engaged for a wide variety of in-house activities, from serving as cashiers at the retail shop or clerical assistants in the mail room to greeters at the admissions desk. Even most institutional Boards of Trustees are composed of volunteers. But of all the volunteers who are culled and cultivated, it may be the volunteer docents who have the most active professional role, the most direct impact upon visitors, and the most profound affect upon the public’s perception ot the institution. Volunteers who freely give their time, energy, and enthusiasm to an institution should be demonstrably appreciated for their generosity and supported in their endeavors. After all, if their hours were translated into monetary donations, these stalwart supporters would be among an institution’s largest and most important individual donors.

During my twenty-five years in museum education, I’ve learned of many institutions who appropriately honor their volunteers by providing them with all the tools necessary to succeed and grow. They speak of their volunteer docents respectfully and remain aware that the institution could not begin to accomplish all that it does without their assistance. Regrettably, I also continue to learn of institutions that do not afford their volunteer docents the respect they deserve for the services rendered.

Ill treatment can take many forms, but it is often first apparent in the choice of words used to discuss docents and their performance. When I hear staff members making derogatory or snide remarks, I find myself wondering more about the institution — how it recruits, prepares, counsels, and trains its volunteers — than I do about the volunteers who attempt to tour and teach the legions of student and adult groups who enter through its doors. Words Matter

The words used by paid staff to describe volunteer docents are important. They give shape to thoughts and perceptions, while also conveying values and judgments. Words that reflect a lack of appreciation can lower the docents’ status and, consequently, the paid staff’s respect for the volunteers’ donated efforts. The result can cause a downward spiral of both expectations and performance.

For instance, one might appropriately use the word “amateur” to describe docents. The primary dictionary definition of the word “amateur” is a praiseworthy one. It means “a person who engages in some art, science, sport, etc. for the pleasure of it rather than for money… .” The same word can be used in a pejorative and deprecatory sense, however, if, for example, it is used to indicate a lack of advanced academic degrees or credentials.

A different duality is true of the word “professional.” The primary definition, as found in Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “conduct worthy of the high standards of a profession.” It is not until reading down to the fifth definition that one comes to “engaged in a specified occupation for pay or as a means of livelihood.” While the word “professional” is frequently used to distinguish paid staff from volunteers, let us not forget that both are expected to serve, behave, and perform as professionals — to exhibit “conduct worthy of the high standards of a profession.”

A Brief Digression

The “English dictionary,” as it is commonly known today, is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago, there was no such convenience available on any bookshelf There was no such reference when Shakespeare was writing his plays to determine the appropriate use of words, or their proper context.

The first dictionaries began appearing in the mid-1700’s, the most famous of which was authored by Samuel Johnson. His work provoked great controversy because of the subjective nature of his definitions and his allowance for the fact that words and their definitions would change over time. Johnson knew an essential truth — that language could neither be fixed, nor kept pure, but would change with time, context, and usage.

While I recognize that words like “amateur” and “professional” have undergone several transmutations in common usage, one should be certain that the meanings intended are the meanings conveyed. When selecting words as descriptive labels, for instance, keep in mind that job performance usually has less to do with paychecks or pedigrees than it does with interest, attitude, determination, and flexibility. To avoid sending unintentional or counterproductive messages, make the effort to choose words positively and purposefully.

The Volunteer as Professional

There is an axiom in education that student performance is directly related to the expectations of the teacher. Students who are challenged to succeed, and who are thought to be intelligent and capable, generally do well. Conversely, students who are not expected to succeed, and who are assumed to be below the standard, generally languish behind. The same might be said of docents. Docents who are challenged to learn, and who are supported in their efforts, often do succeed. Challenging docents to learn means inspiring them. Inspiration seems directly related to the caliber and qualities of the staff who supervise docents. Supporting docents in their efforts requires providing them with access to subject matter information, routes for professional development, exposure to educational philosophies and pedagogical techniques, and constructive evaluations and feedback.

Paid staff should set standards of performance that they, too, exemplify and uphold. For instance, those who train docents shouldn’t teach solely by transferring information if docents are expected to teach school children experientially or through inquiry. Likewise, docents shouldn’t use the excuse that they aren’t paid to shirk responsibilities or to excuse substandard performance. Whether paid or voluntary, being professional means “conduct worthy of the high standards of a profession.” And the profession referred to here is that of educator.

Volunteers recruited to become docents should be informed of their professional standing and the professional expectations and rigors inherent in such a prominent position. Better to have too few docents than a full roster of poorly-prepared or poorly-performing docents. A docent whose talents do not jibe with the skills required to be an educator should be directed to other volunteer positions within the institution. This can only be accomplished fairly if there are periodic assessments and evaluations. If a docent understands what he or she is asked to do, and has ample opportunity to receive guidance and feedback, then both the volunteer and the staff members know if things will ultimately work out.

There need be no shame or blame involved in counseling a volunteer to shift from docent work to some other voluntary contribution within the organization. There are people, for instance, who are extremely fact-oriented and who may never get the hang of teaching in a more “conversational” manner. Such volunteers would be better suited to working with the registrar, the curators, or in the institutional library than engaging with third-grade school children. Teaching requires particular proclivities and talents, but so does research. Neither activity is better or worse; the only thing better or worse is the “fit” between volunteer and responsibilities.

“The Art of the Deal”

Docents should be accorded status similar to that which a paid instructor would receive and be expected to perform as such. The “deal” demands that an institution take docent needs and concerns into consideration and. in exchange, that docents perform up to professional expectations in both manner and demeanor. This requires that the institution clearly define what “professional” means, and express these expectations in writing. (An institution’s educational philosophies and espoused teaching styles must not be implied, but definitively stated).

Many forms of respect are easily demonstrated. Docents demonstrate respect by being dependable, punctual, available for training, and willing to receive evaluation. Institutions can demonstrate respect by keeping docents informed of changes in the galleries, having the institutional director meet with docents periodically to discuss the long-term direction that the organization is charting, having curators speak with docents to acquaint them with the content of exhibitions and such things as traffic flow and object labeling, and saying “thank you” whenever possible.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Voluntary Professionals,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 2-3.

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