Thinking out loud: voluntarism in schools and historical perspective

This post is largely to think out loud about historical perspectives, and more specifically a topic I have not (yet) tried to put in historical perspective: volunteers in school. This is not probably a post that will provide great insight, and it certainly does not show great wisdom on my part: as you will see below, the scribblings I did before starting this post are rather stream-of-consciousness that I an repeating here to be complete.

This started with a conversation I had a few months ago with an applicant to one of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College’s doctoral programs. We were talking about the use of volunteers in school, and our collective impression given the haphazard use of volunteers we had observed was that there is relatively little research on the effectiveness of volunteers or how schools can/should take advantage of volunteers.1 Interesting conversation in a half-hour interview, and some joint curiosity.

Yesterday, after coming back from a book festival at my local library, I thought about the volunteers for various groups in the library, especially the Friends of the [place-name] Library, and it brought me back to the conversation in February. There is an extensive literature on the history of American charities, many of which have been run by volunteers. There is the other sense of “volunteer” as in volunteer service in a war, or in a logistical charity connected to a war (I am thinking of Florence Nightingale and the volunteer nurses in the Crimean War). But with a few relatively narrow topics (see below), there is very little on the history of volunteering in schools in the United States, and certainly not a broad overview. What are the types of questions that could be answered?

I am not about to start a project on the history of volunteering in schools — or I don’t think so, given the intensity it would require and my existing commitments. This blog entry illustrates one very idiosyncratic way of raising historical questions about a topic, and the advantage of using volunteering as the topic is that I come to it fresh, both personally and as someone in a field that has not explored it as a broad subject. The order presented below is the order in which I sketched out/listed ideas before I began writing this entry.

I started by listing some of the current issues that are tied to volunteering in schools, beyond the question of effectiveness and organization I raised above:

  • In what ways is volunteering an issue closely tied to social class and gender, especially in terms of parent volunteers who can carve out time to come to a school?
  • In what ways is volunteering a way of organizing social networks — from the in-group clique in an individual school to political organizing tied to charter school networks?
  • In what ways is volunteering a way of organizing fundraising, and how is this different from (and who has the advantage of this in contrast with) volunteering for specific tasks at a school such as tutoring?
  • In what senses is volunteering for students, and in what senses is volunteering for the adults, especially the adults who volunteer?

From there, I thought of a few specific memories of mine related to volunteering in schools:

  • My mother, having built up enough of a relationship with administrators after years of volunteering, was able to use that relationship in a few key moments when she was concerned about events at schools.
  • In Nashville in the mid-90s, I saw a fairly sustained effort by the business community pushed an idea they called Pencil Partners, where local businesses would adopt individual schools. This had begun in the early 1980s, and while I had some concerns about the examples of the partnerships I saw, it was an organized networking I had never seen before.
  • My wife and I both volunteered at our children’s elementary school, and my weekly tutoring in mid-September 2001 fell on September 12.2 My daughter’s teacher asked me to stay in the class after tutoring that day because she had already heard plenty of questions from the fourth-grade students about the terrorist attack, wanted to answer them as best she could, but wanted another adult in the room. The first question: one child explained that her parents both worked at McDill Air Force Base and asked if they were a likely target.

And then I started in on the historical questions. Below is a table with the historical connection or question on the left. They are presented in the order in which I wrote them down, and they are fairly cryptic because they are scribbled notes. My apologies for any item that is not immediately apparent or unexplained (i.e., most of them). After completing the list, I browsed them and tried to identify why I had thought of it. I started with several items from the known historical literature, but after that, most of the entries are efforts either to fill a hole I saw in the list (where are issues of race, ethnicity, religion?) or a “slide” to an issue that may not be directly about education but is in a related area of social history (e.g., the history of charities and voluntarism). And in a few cases I circled back to issues I had listed earlier as I thought of additional related threads.

Item in the list best guess as to why I thought of it
Nancie Beadie and capital networks standard historiography
M.B.Katz, corporate voluntarism standard historiography
New York Public School Society standard historiography
Hull House, CFT, tax lawsuit standard historiography
Catholic orders, almost-free labor fill hole (religion)
Jeb Bush, mentoring as governor;
when did mentoring become a Thing
fill hole (recent history)
Peace Corps/VISTA/TFA
low-paid service as patriotic
fill hole (recent history)
History of school boards as paid/unpaid fill hole (governance)
Stansell, City of Women: COS,
middle-class women, and charity history
slide to social history
infant schools and middle-class patrons
Winterer, early-90s article
related area in education (slide back?)
“boards” as structure to combine
voluntarism and power
circle back to governance
missionary teachers in S after Civil War fill hole (race, gender)
gendered nature of 19th c voluntarism circle back to gender
Sunday-school teachers as volunteers circle back to religion
When did coaches begin to get paid? fill hole (extracurriculum)
Was Highlander Folk School
filled with volunteers?
slide to related area (adult ed in
social movements)
When did schools start background
checks on volunteers?
Complete leap of topic
Why aren’t volunteers organized by
schools on the whole?
Broader question, related (why do schools
perform background checks but don’t
Volunteer interpreters – history of? fill hole (language)
Children as interpreters for their
Specific example
When have students’ activities been seen
as volunteering
follow thread
Service as organized/service learning follow thread
Service clubs (including scouting) follow thread
Babysitting coops fill hole (volunteering outside schools)
Homeschooling as volunteering? slide back to schooling
Sunday-schools and ministers as teachers cycle back to religion
Deacons, lay ministers as volunteer
follow thread
Dividing line between volunteering
and quasi-profession (including
teacher-ministers in 18th c., part of
male schoolmaster routine)
follow thread
Mississippi Freedom Summer &
cycle back to race/Reconstruction
missionary teachers
Parents becoming paraprofessionals in
special ed…
Take dividing-line issue and reverse:
when volunteers become employees
Martial-arts students opening their
own schools
follow thread
When did various activities become
possible to be topic of paid teaching:
comedy, exercise, executive coaching
follow thread
de Tocqueville, running schools as
training ground for democracy
slide to intellectual history

In looking back over this, I see a lot of jumping around, but some common themes in what prompted a topic: remembering a part of the standard historiography that is relevant, thinking of holes in the subjects covered thus far and how they should be filled, following a train of thought, and sliding over to related areas in social or intellectual history, with the occasional circling back to a topic previously mentioned. In addition, I am certain that I have missed some obvious topics. In other words, my mind is a complete mess when I start thinking about a topic, but I have some standard tricks of the trade.


  1. There is some research; see systematic reviews by Ritter et al., 2009; DuBois et al., 2011; and Tolan et al., 2014. All are behind paywalls. []
  2. Their middle school and each high school were… let’s charitably describe them as disorganized in never responding to our volunteer offers. []