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Factors in Tutor Retention

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by Victoire Gerkens Sanborn 

“A program that says ‘welcome’ in every way, over the phone, in person, or in the mail, invites a volunteer to be a part. Volunteers who feel they belong, return.”

Sarah Elliston, Volunteer Management

More than eight out of 10 people volunteer because they feel compassion for those in need. Yet many literacy tutors drop out after volunteering for only eleven months. What are the important factors that motivate long-term tutors to remain in adult education and literacy programs? Answers may be found in the five top reasons that volunteers have cited.1 

1. Desire to help others. If helping others is the primary catalyst for volunteering, then poor student progress and frequent absenteeism will stop the desire. Some tutors believe good will and motivation are more important in teaching than lesson preparation.2 This practice may lead to slow, uneven improvement, increasing tutor frustration. Helping students achieve short- and long-term goals are as crucial to tutor success as a learner’s. 

2. Clearly defined responsibilities. Proper volunteer orientation and solid initial training should include program expectations and objectives, and realistic predictions of adult learner progress. If tutors are unclear about the reasons for accountability, they may give higher priority to their own goals than the program’s goals. Training, therefore, should focus as equally on the systems for volunteer work as on the volunteers. Tutors who are unable to meet a program’s criteria for tutoring should be offered other volunteer jobs, since dissatisfaction can lower program morale. 

3. Interesting work. “Asking upper level tutors to [help with] lower level tutor training generates excitement and motivation for all tutors and staff.”3 Use experienced peer volunteers to mentor tutors during the first crucial weeks after their training. Treat volunteer tutors the same as paid staff regarding training, input, and evaluations. Reward highly motivated tutors with training that improves job skills; reimbursement for conference travel; advancement to paid positions; increased responsibilities;4 and flexible scheduling when feasible. Ask empowering questions5 such as, “How would you design a lesson around this subject?” Listen actively. 

4. Competent supervisors. Many tutors “perceive that their program coordinators have received little more training than they, which downplays [in their minds] the necessity for advanced training and support or supervision.”6 Literacy programs must make staff development a priority. Arming volunteers with knowledge about the field of adult education, including trends, statistics, research, teacher resources, literacy web sites, and educational opportunities for students will benefit both them and the program. 

5. Guidance from supervisors.

Giving tutors program feedback and keeping them regularly informed decreases their sense of isolation, and streamlining reporting requirements influences their retention.7 Encourage tutors to seek specialists’ advice. Provide frequent in-services, focus groups, and opportunities to share research and ideas. For long-term tutors, the social aspect of volunteering becomes increasingly influential in their decision to remain.8 Contact, therefore, should be personal, frequent, and consistent.

Good volunteer managers focus attention on these critical periods: 1) The first six months, when the greatest loss of volunteers occurs; 2) anniversaries, such as evaluation periods or when projects are completed; and 3) the end of an agreed term of participation, when volunteers are reconsidering their tutoring commitment.9 Volunteer leaders must learn to be proactive in managing tutors. Above all, they need to welcome their volunteers with open arms and find ways to reward them that are meaningful.


1Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community, Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, Heritage Arts Publishing, 1996, p 120 2 Working Paper #3, Behaviour and Beliefs of Volunteer Literacy Tutors, Catherine Hambly, MA, McGill University, 1998, “Tutor Behaviour” and Statement 3, downloaded 9-13-01, www.nald.ca?PROVINCE/QUE/litcent/Publication_Products/ wkpaper3/page3.htm 3CRLA Tutor Certification, College Reading and Learning Association, www.crla.net, August, 01 4MCCurley & Lynch, p120 5Ibid, p 78 6Hambley, “Statement 2” 7Fostering Volunteer Programs in the Public Sector: Planning, Initiatives, and Managing Volunteer Activities, Jeffrey Brudney, Jossey-Bass, 1990, p 163 8Brudney, p 162 9McCurley & Lynch, p 121-122


Victoire Gerkens Sanborn works for the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center and the Virginia Literacy Foundation as a Literacy Support Coordinator, supplying technical and program development support to community-based literacy organizations. 

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