How to coddle a volunteer

This week I finished my volunteer stint as co-planner for the Ontario School Library Association, which for a rough estimate, is about 100 hours per year.  As one of the best volunteer experiences of my life, I’d like to take you through why it’s such a fine way to give your time back to your profession.  The Ontario Library Association celebrated its 25th anniversary of this conference this year and so it has honed the craft of finding and retaining volunteers to a fine art.  Here’s what they do really well to make sure their volunteers are happy.


There’s a legacy structure to the planning committee so that 1/2 are returning to plan a 2nd year, and the other 1/2 are new to the role.  My senior co-planner Jess Longthorne in 2018, and my junior co-planner Diana Maliszewski in 2019 are both elementary teacher-librarians.  Having this diversity in our team helped us to better cover the full spectrum of needs.  Collaboration is hard work and I would always prefer to parallel play but this enforced structure helped me grow in my ability to communicate and share ideas.

Advocacy to supervisors

Without any question whatsover, OLA provided a letter and 5 paid supply days to my principal to cover my 5 absences for this planning.

Fancy red vests

Each of the 23 Superconference co-planners was loaned a red vest to wear from sunset on Tuesday to sundown on Friday and we wore them with pride.  I felt like part of an elite club, or a magnificent unit mobilizing to make OLASC perfection.

Biology needs taken care of or at the ready

I had a glorious hotel room onsite at the Superconference.  Whenever I was hungry, there was good healthy food.  My car was safe and dry.  Whether it was at the 2 days of planning we did at the OLA office, or at HQ at the conference itself, I was well-fed, comfortable and my sense of security was a priority.

Wiggle room

I felt enormous responsibility in choosing sessions and our spotlight speakers for the Superconference.  We wanted quality and edge.  We wanted diversity and inclusivity.  We wanted to have a fabulously rich experience for each attendee.  Michelle Arbuckle and her team had a number of strategies for helping us ideate and design just such a schedule.  At the same time, we were given freedom to develop the conference theme within our own context and to choose speakers that matched our own vision.

Clear instructions

Even before we began, we were given a schedule to follow for the whole year.  We were told which meetings would be face-to-face and what our goals would be.  This really helped me to stay on track and once I added them to a Google Calendar, it helped us remember to check in with one another.

Clear help

In the moment at Superconference, even enormous amounts of pre-planning can’t prepare you for everything.  We used Slack to build channels where we could ask for help and receive it at a moment’s notice.  Because we had this reliable help structure, we took greater creative risks.  For example, Diana and I worked this year to bring in Stephen Hurley from to podcast some of our sessions.  Stephen just needed a quick lesson from the tech people to get started.  In another moment, Peter Skillen from Code to Learn offered free books for all OSLA participants but we had to get those books from one floor to another.  No problem, people helped us anticipate how to make that flow from floor to floor.

Long leashes

Our only instruction really is to: show up, make sure everything goes smoothly and sometimes, make sure everyone is having fun.  So I really enjoyed taking the conference theme seriously and dragging my costume out for the welcome party, or making sure I had a 90s song ready for karaoke.

Someone to tug at the end of the leash and reign me back in

There are these awkward/funny moments when Michelle (both years in a row), wants us to all show up and look shiny for a group photo, or drink champagne en masse, or lead the fun at one of the socials.  Having these scheduled times to show up as a red vest collective really helped us to signal to conference attendees that this is where you can be welcome and be social.  For a group of introverts (or at best ambiverts), this is a really important part of the superconference.

A reasonable bedtime

All of our social events ended at 10 pm.  Lord knows that I am not great at self-regulation and can be too easily persuaded to push myself to the edge, so having limits set for me is wonderful.  I felt no pressure at all to stay out too late by the official ending of a social event.


…is my favourite meal of the day and 2 of the 3 mornings of Superconference I had a planned breakfast meeting.  More groups should do meetings this way.  Here’s your energy, here’s what you need to know, now go forth and make awesome things happen for everyone else all day.

A little music goes a long way

There were moments where my feet were telling me that they just couldn’t go on, and then someone would play some funky tunes and I found my next wind.

Have an exit plan

The plan is for all superconference planners that you’ll do it twice.  Knowing that there is a finite ending has really helped me prepare emotionally for this post-planners trough.  I’m sort of sad that I won’t be able to hang out all the time with the new friends I’ve met on the planning committee, but I’m also looking forward to remembering what I did before.  Heck I might even blog more often.  I can feel myself thinking to warn incoming OSLA Superconference planner Kate Johnson-McGregor about Diana’s total lack of focus (I mean who drops to their knees to create a poster in the middle of a sandbox?) but the fun in volunteering in a collaborative format, is to find out these things for yourself.  Volunteering for the Ontario Library Association has been a rich journey in my own professional development as a school library leader and as an agent of change.

I’ll just close with this dangerous sentiment:

I’m available now for new volunteering opportunities.  But I should warn you, I’ve had the best so my standards are pretty high.


Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you. I don’t know if you’ve heard this enough, but thank you…..over the past two years, your red vest has made a huge difference to me. OLA boggled my mind the first time I attended (about 12 years ago) – I got to hear amazing, thought-provoking speakers (Vincent Lam and Gabor Maté stand out), and when I returned last year, I had the added bonus of having a great many of my #pln to spend time with face to face. The school library sessions are rich and deep and there are a kajillion other sessions you can attend. I can’t figure out why more teachers who aren’t TLs don’t want to go – so many big ideas, so many free books, so many #fangirl learning moments. It’s amazing.
    I don’t know “what’s next?” , my friend, but I hope I can come along for the ride… put together a pretty good party!

    Liked by 2 people

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