Volunteers in Adult Ed

In adult ed, there’s plenty of passion, tons of motivation, and certainly a lot of need. What there’s less of a lot of is money. One way to address this is with volunteers. In this post, I’d like to share some tips for bringing in and supporting volunteers, as well as some different roles volunteers can take on in your program.


Getting interested volunteers in your door is easier than you expect. Place a few standing ads on volunteermatch.org, idealist.org, and your program’s social media pages and website. Post a clear “job” description and call to action (“Email Carl for more info” or “Fill out an application at our offices”). You might not get flooded with responses immediately, but keep the ads out there and spread the word, and you’ll get a steady flow of applicants over time.

Another option is to partner with a college or teacher training program. Many such programs want to place their trainees into classrooms for a semester, and if you set up a strong partnership, this can mean regular batches of trained volunteers.


You’ll have to design an intake process that suits your program, but all processes will have some form of the following components:

  • Screening – This might involve only a simple interview or questionnaire, but in some contexts, even a criminal background check might be appropriate.
  • Orientation – You want to make sure potential volunteers know enough about your organization, your expectations, and the work they will be doing to decide whether this position is right for them. Put together a brief spiel (and ideally some brochures and literature) about your organization’s history and mission, target population, policies and expectations, etc.
  • Training As I discuss further below, tutor training is crucial to a successful volunteering program. This can be costly and time consuming, and you may not have the resources to do face-to-face trainings in-house, so look into alternatives.
  • Placement – Ideally, you’ll have a few different placement options for different kinds of applicants. Some will need more support, others more independence. Do your best to learn about volunteers strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, so that you can make the best placement possible.

Roles of Volunteers

Most often, adult ed volunteers are placed into one-on-one tutoring situations. This works, and for many it’s very successful: The student gets personalized attention, and the tutor gets the opportunity to see the impact of his or her dedication first-hand.

But this model is not without its drawbacks. Some volunteers would like a connection to a larger community. On their own, some tutors may feel unequipped to handle all the questions a student may have relating to the whys of grammar or the hows of pronunciation, for instance. Also, though we don’t talk a whole lot about efficiency in language instruction, it’s hard not to notice the inefficiency of the one-on-one model.

At our program, there are a few other roles tutors can take. Most of our tutors begin as classroom assistants, participating actively in conversations, modeling pronunciation, helping the teacher to monitor written work, and so on. They become an invaluable resource, and a major part of the classroom community, and they also have some time to build their confidence while watching a trained teacher in action.

Alternatively, if you have any volunteers with lots of training or teaching experience, small groups or even whole classes can be an option. We’ll often have a volunteer come in about a half hour before the end of class, then stay for an hour after class helping a group of students with extra conversation practice and homework. We have also had some success coordinating multiple volunteers to teach an entire class. There are in fact organizations that operate entirely on this model.


Volunteers need support, and this can be tricky from the administrative perspective. Time and resources are limited in most adult ed settings.

The strongest recommendations for volunteer support relate to training. Volunteers need a strong preservice training that leaves them feeling equipped for the classroom.This may seem obvious. It is also recommended that volunteers be given plenty of ongoing training and opportunities for professional development. Now, if your program is anything like mine, your volunteering program is entirely unfunded and there may simply not be enough resources available to put together the kind of training program you’d like to offer. Often, there are free training programs at other organizations that are open to all, and we encourage our volunteers to attend those.

I also try to regularly forward articles on language acquisition and pedagogy to volunteers (with their consent, of course, but these are almost always welcome!).

One of the other forms of support that my volunteers often seek is to be directed to teaching materials that are appropriate for what they are doing. Try to keep an organized library and give a little “tour” during orientation.

Have you had success with volunteers in your program? Please share how in the comments section, below!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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2 Responses to Volunteers in Adult Ed

  1. I work for the Literacy Council of Central Alabama and ours is one of those organizations that relies solely on volunteer tutors. We are an adults-only agency whose tutors serve over 15 ESOL programs (and growing!) in our five county service area. As Director of Training and ESOL Services, I also train tutors for other community-based programs in our service area, as well as for programs elsewhere in the state. Our agency is accredited by the international adult education organization, ProLiteracy, and I am also a certified ProLiteracy tutor trainer.

    Some of our tutors are teachers–some K-12 ESL, some in other disciplines–but many more are from other walks of life and simply want to teach learners from other countries how to speak English. As a former ESL volunteer myself, I wanted to provide my learners with the best possible learning experience they could get, even if it was in a church basement or local community center. That is what drove me to get an advanced degree in teaching ESL to adult ELLs. With that education under my belt, I was hired to lead the tutor training program at our local literacy council. There I am able to help volunteers learn how to channel their enthusiasm into quality ESL teaching.

    All of our tutors must attend our Volunteer Orientation so they have a full understanding of what being an ESL tutor involves–training required, time commitments, etc. Once they decide to proceed, they attend a one day training on the fundamentals of teaching ESL to adults–including the unique nature of teaching adults, intercultural communication as well as reading, writing, listening and speaking instruction. They are then placed in pairs (or more depending on the size of the program to which they are assigned) in one of our area programs. We try to pair them with a seasoned tutor, but that is not always possible, but they aren’t sent “into the wilderness.” My field program coordinator (also a ProLiteracy certified tutor trainer and long-time ESL tutor) and I attend the new tutors’ first three or four classes to provide in-place support, help with intake assessments, answer questions, etc. As the teaching term progresses through the year–we run loosely on the same terms as the public school year–our field coordinator makes regular visits to make sure all of the tutors are comfortable and that the programs are running smoothly. All of our tutors teach classes–some as few as five, some as many as 15-20. Only two or three of our tutors teach one-on-one.

    We only started direct service three years ago when, as local non-English speaking populations were growing, we were getting more frequent calls for help starting community-based programs. We quickly developed a model of establishing programs where the “site sponsors” managed the latch-key responsibilities of the site, as well as recruiting both learners and potential tutors. We followed with either on-site tutor training or having their volunteers train at one of our regularly scheduled trainings at our office. We then provide on-going tutor support. In essence, those become our programs under a memorandum of understanding with site sponsors. (While we know that child care is critical to parents’ attendance, we do not become involved in that piece. However, we do strongly encourage sponsors to find a way to make that happen!)

    As for on-going professional development, we provide that in several different ways. The biggest one is our annual ESOL Educators Conference. This conference is held every October and is often the only professional conference volunteers can afford to attend. Our presenters are most often professors from the local university’s ESL graduate program, faculty in area university’s intensive English programs, and sometimes tutors themselves. We also invite tutors to watch webinars together, direct them often to online resources for PD–including ProLiteracy and LINCS offerings. And every tutor is always welcome to come back to a tutor training as a free “refresher.” We also post resources on our website from time to time.

    As in most adult education settings like ours, learner persistence is the tutors’ greatest frustration. If anyone as the magic solution to fix that, I am ready to listen! Thanks for your article. It is not often TESOL International speaks to the lives of volunteer tutors and the agencies that enlist their help.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thorough response, Linda! There really aren’t nearly as many resources out there for volunteer-based programs as there ought to be.

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