Help the Public Schools: Be a Guest Speaker

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High. Her column appears weekly

Businesses and the people who run them can do a lot to help out public schools--so why don't they? If you're a business or professional person, you may be hesitant to get involved because you think helping out means spending big money to build libraries or finance other gigantic programs.

But one of the best ways you can help students and teachers doesn't cost anything: You can be a guest speaker.

Doing this is easier than you think--and it will probably bring you a lot more pleasure than you expect. Here are some simple steps for giving helpful and interesting presentations to local students.

First, think about your career or main interests, and decide which grade levels and subjects tie in best. If you're an engineer, for example, you would probably be most inspiring to a math or drafting class, while an interior designer might be most helpful in an art or design class.

Considering the array of subjects offered in most public schools, there's almost certainly one that would benefit from your experience. If you don't see a connection, call a nearby school and ask where you would fit in best.

And don't feel that you're being pushy by offering to come as a guest speaker; many teachers appreciate opportunities like this but simply don't know where to look for speakers.

The thought of facing a class may be a little scary, but you can prevent stage fright with some planning. First, talk to the teacher before you visit. Find out, for example, how many students are in the class and how old they are. Then you'll know what your audience will look like, and how sophisticated your presentation should be.

Also ask the teacher to design a follow-up assignment based on your presentation--that way you'll have their complete attention because a grade now depends on it.

An informal seating arrangement can also help make the audience less intimidating, so ask the teacher to put the kids in a circle or random clump.

Before you begin your talk, have the students introduce themselves briefly and either say something they already know about your topic or something they want to know. This puts you all on equal footing, because now they've had to speak in front of the group, too.

Finally, expect to be a little nervous. This is my fourth year of teaching, but when I greet new classes every semester, my first (silent) response is still: "Oh Lord, they're all bigger than I am." That may never go away.

Another obstacle for would-be guest speakers is trying to decide what to say to a class. Luckily, this is pretty easy to work through, too.

You don't have to write a speech--just a basic description of what you do, how you do it, and how it relates to what the children learn in school.

You're there to share your own experiences, something their books cannot possibly give, so tell lots of personal stories and anecdotes about real-life projects, problems and achievements.

Bring along some props too, since they can make your presentation more interesting and understandable. And, despite what you've heard about the MTV generation, props need not include neon lights, Dolby sound effects or a chorus line.

Chances are that the ordinary tools you use every day will be fascinating to the students. If possible, let some of the children try out one of the props.

Try to be brief too. Children are antsy at any age, and only Madonna or Magic Johnson could keep their attention for much more than a half-hour (less for younger children). So cover the basics and then, as they used to say in vaudeville, always leave the audience waiting for more.

Finally, a request: Please don't consider just elementary schools. I constantly see TV and newspaper stories about private citizens helping grade schools. This is great and I certainly don't want it to stop, but I would like to see an equal amount of community attention given to teen-agers, since that is the age at which too many children become bored with school and drop out.

Junior and senior high school students desperately need to see how their schoolwork can help them later, by meeting professionals who can demonstrate this connection for them.

Some people may be discouraged from visiting high schools because of the stereotype of teen-agers as jaded, apathetic and a hard crowd to play to. But the truth is that most teen-agers are friendly, open-minded, and courteous--and that's why I look forward to seeing them every day.

But no matter which age group you prefer, there are a lot of students who need and want to hear what you have to say.

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