How To Listen First to the Needs of Students, Teachers and Parents


It’s so important that you begin your project with complete flexibility and openness. Whatever you think your project will be and what it will do — this will change. It will evolve. So stay flexible and don’t over-plan or over-assume. All will change and change again.

The main thing you have going for you is enthusiasm and volunteers and the willingness to help in the grand project of educating young people in the power of written word.

But you are working with local schools, teachers, parents and their children. And they have needs that you will not know until you ask.

Let’s assume you have a group of dedicated people ready to open a writing center. You have even found a space for your center. You dream up a thousand ideas, perhaps taking inspiration from existing writing centers around the world.

The next step is to start talking to local teachers and parents. You might find that the needs of the local schools differ, slightly or significantly, from the needs you assumed existed. You might find, for example, that teachers are yearning for more help with reading, and are desperate for an army of volunteers just to sit and read with students (this happened with 826DC, for example). You might also find that a local school already has an after-school tutoring program, but that it really needs volunteers. It could be that you combine forces, and bring your volunteers to their existing program.

With feedback from teachers and parents, you’ll be far better able to make an immediate impact and get immediate buy-in from local schools and families. The nice byproduct of all this is that you can start quicker. You don’t have to dream up a full curriculum. You can fit your program into the grand design of a local school. You can (and should) be in service to the larger project of public education.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t design brand-new projects on your own. You should! But doing so in conversation with the existing network of teachers, parents and students is key.

And staying flexible is the most important thing of all. If you think you will open and do X, Y, and Z, and in that order, you will be mistaken. You might find that teachers don’t actually need X, students won’t sign up for Y, and that Z is already being done by another local nonprofit. Be ready to go back to the drawing board, with help from the stakeholders.

Remember that if you tell a local teacher that you have 10 volunteers ready to be of service, they will absolutely find a way to make those tutors useful. That’s the beauty of going in with openness and flexibility. But if you decide, before talking to teachers, that you and your team are there for one inflexible purpose — teaching haiku to eight-year-olds, for example — you will greatly limit buy-in and impact.

So be ready to shape your services around the genuine articulated needs of the schools you will serve.