Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guest Post: Austin Partners in Education

From time to time, I' like to hear from the folks I've coerced into helping me with this goal. My big brother was one of the first people to jump on board with this project, and he spent the spring volunteering in Austin public schools as a math tutor/educator. Here are his thoughts on the volunteer experience he has had at Austin Partners in Education.
My favorite destination for my volunteer money or time has always been education. As near as I can tell, it solves every problem. It lifts people from poverty, helps them make better decisions, opens up opportunities for further growth, and helps build communities in healthy and sustainable ways. It solves energy problems, medical problems, social problems, and even educational problems! It's the best. Education is really just the best. We should do more of it.

Education has also been the first area where I've donated more time than money this year. It's been a long, long time since I volunteered any time, but after looking for a while for a reason to periodically get out of the house, I stumbled upon a volunteer opportunity that was perfect for me. It involved helping teach kids math, one of my favorite and best fields. It was near my work, near lunchtime, and afforded me the opportunity to not only get out of the house for a while, but also work with kids who could really use my help.

The volunteer opportunity I tried was called Austin Partners in Education. It's a pretty big organization, boasting something like 2000 volunteers. Once a week, I would go in and work in very small groups (nearly one-on-one) with kids who were having trouble with math. It was all pretty straightforward stuff, but getting to do teaching, math, and volunteering all at once? Sounded like a great time to me. What they mostly needed from potential volunteers wasn't a lot of crazy experience or anything, mostly just enthusiasm and a willingness to be patient with kids who needed it. I could do that. (Hint: so can you!)

For the most part, it wasn't too bad. I was perfectly willing to give them a lot of patience: my usual math student was less than 2 at the time, and he still hasn't picked up counting yet. The fact that it took the other students a couple of tries to pick complex fractions was a welcome change of pace. Each day we'd do a little more work, sometimes offering encouragement as they worked, sometimes dragging them through the exercises, and sometimes failing even to do that. But you do what you can, and though the kids I was working with were in middle school, and already too cool to appreciate anything, we were continuously reminded by the teachers that they could really see improvement in their students. And the kids did appreciate it, even if they didn't say so with, you know, words. Or actions. Or facial expressions.

I enjoyed it, and being as school is starting up soon I'm planning on volunteering again when the program starts up for the new year. Every year there's a new crew of kids that need help with math, and by Jove! I just might be the incredibly dorky math nerd to help them. If this sounds like the sort of thing you might want to try, here's some little tips you may want to consider:

  1. Bring your own pencils and/or pens. The kids often don't have their own, or are willing to fake it so they don't have to work.
  2. Bring neat stuff. I got a lot of mileage out of my cool and unique backpack.
  3. It's okay to talk about your interests, especially if it's stuff like video games or (hurk) pop music that they can get into as well. You have to let them come out of their shell in their own way.
  4. But do remember that you are an authority as well, and it's your main goal to get them to do work. You can't force them to do anything, of course, but you might be surprised how well telling them 'it's time to work' will just make it so.

Now get out there and change some lives!

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