Power-Hungry Art Coordinator

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In my previous post The Volunteer Part II, The Art Docent, I discussed my role last year as a volunteer art docent for my oldest daughter’s class. This proved to be a fascinating experience, particularly because, much to my surprise, the behavior of a room full of elementary school students was not all that different than the antics I’m subjected to in company meetings.

This interaction was close enough to my corporate comfort zone that the kids can consider themselves lucky I didn’t break out a bunch of Excel tables and start lecturing on the importance of using the correct variables in your statistical regression models. (I’m not actually a statistician, but I work with one and have figured out how to imitate him well enough to sound considerably more intelligent than I really am. Look people, it’s all about perception.)

With this school year came a unique opportunity. The son of the volunteer lady who coordinated the art docent program was switching to the local school for smart kids. This meant her position was open. Since no one else wanted the job of coordinator (which should have been a sign to me), I jumped at the opportunity. After all, as coordinator couldn’t I wield my newly-gained power across not only the art docent program but maybe even the PTA? Who cares if I didn’t get paid? Since I had no actual power at work (and zero power at home with my kids), my dictatorial cravings would finally be satisfied.

Excited at the thought that people would finally listen to me, I immediately set goals, made a PowerPoint, and met with the school principal to align on said goals. I could barely wait to begin assembling my team of minions, um, I mean volunteer art docents.

Despite my and the principal’s enthusiasm, I quickly learned that running a volunteer program is not an easy task. This is primarily due to the fact that an astonishing number of volunteers are flakes with a limited sense of responsibility and urgency. In all fairness, I suppose this shouldn’t have shocked me, since they aren’t getting paid; even a number of salaried people at my corporate job are neither accountable nor timely for anything not directly related to a department potluck. (People love food…organizing it, making it, talking about it, eating it, etc.)

After the Back to School Night volunteer sign-ups, I had at least one volunteer for each of the 15 classrooms. However, as time passed and the first art lesson was only a few weeks away, half of the parents had stopped responding to my e-mails…and I suspected some of them had even changed their identities.

While I struggled with the concept of grown-ups signing up for something that they weren’t actually interested in doing, it occurred to me that the reason these people had gone into hiding may have something to do with the fact that they realized they would actually have to stand up in front of 30 kids and try to teach them something.

Having attended numerous official company meetings where adults spent most of the hour ignoring the agenda and competing for laughs (kind of like an episode of “Last Comic Standing”), I was used to free-for-alls and teaching unruly kids, while at times frustrating, was only marginally more frightening.

Sadly, there was no room for power-wielding despotism. To keep the program intact, I couldn’t afford to lose any more parent volunteers. There was clearly only one solution.  I was going to have to schlep the group to a series of meetings at my company…and follow it up with a potluck.

The Volunteer Part II, the Art Docent

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In the Volunteer Part I , I had ventured out of my corporate comfort zone of meaningless statistics and mind-numbing Excel spreadsheets to tackle volunteering at my then fourth grader’s Thanksgiving party. As I doled out someone else’s scalloped potatoes to a stampede of hungry 9 year olds, I found that these kids weren’t any scarier than the lunatics I deal with on a daily basis in the asylum…I mean business world. In fact, by the end of the party I even felt comfortable enough to accept the challenge when the room parent called out “Anyone want to volunteer to do the class art lessons?”

As I soon learned, this volunteer role had the official title of  “Art Docent” and required me to teach a series of 4 lessons in art history along with an accompanying art project for each. In other words, for most of the lesson I had to talk loudly to a bunch of unruly people about a topic they weren’t really interested in, while attempting to direct their attention to the accompanying PowerPoint slides. This was definitely familiar territory. I wondered if I would get business cards.

It turns out I didn’t get business cards, but at least the lesson materials were already prepared. All I had to do was edit the heck out of them for “better clarification,” which was a key management technique I’d observed in my interactions with our senior leadership team. (“Leadership Team” is pretentious corporate speak for the people that dump an urgent project on your plate and then immediately go on vacation somewhere without cell phone network coverage, leaving you to work through the holiday Christmas party to meet the deadline. On the positive side, at least you get to miss the crappy White Elephant exchange…)

As anticipated, there really wasn’t much difference between a classroom presentation and a business meeting. In fact, the cast of characters was very similar, which is probably due to the fact that many school kids grow up to be corporate folks.

Here are a few of the personalities I encountered during my lessons, which are also typically present in the business setting:

The Royal Pain: Puts his hand up every time you ask a question, even though he has no idea what you’re talking about and has been holding a sidebar conversation with the kid next to him since you started the lesson. When you move on to the next topic, his hand is still up.

Defense Tactic: Aside from slapping him, which would be illegal, there’s not much you can do. Take comfort in the fact that when this guy gets to the business world, he likely won’t make it out of the mailroom.

The One-Upper: This is the kid who, after you talk about Italian art, tries to impress you with his vast knowledge of Italian pasta shapes.

Defense Tactic: Since you used to live in Italy, continue the lesson in Italian for the next five minutes. Your Italian is admittedly a little rusty these days, but he won’t know if you confuse the word for faucet with the word for toilet.

The Politician: This girl sweetly reminds you how fun it was when you two sat together on the bus during last year’s class field trip. Unfortunately, this is also the same kid that nastily announced at the class holiday party last week that she re-gifted the Secret Santa present she received from your daughter.

Defense Tactic: Sweetly remind her back (in a low, sinister voice), that you know what she did last Christmas…

The Attention-Seeker: This brat complains the whole time that the art project is too difficult. Somehow, despite her complaints, she manages to complete the project within the given timeframe.

Defense Tactic: Give her the attention she so desperately craves by challenging this kid to a game of tetherball at recess. Then, wipe the court with her. If it looks like she’s going to win, however, claim sudden dehydration and explain that you urgently need a drink from the toilet.