I once asked Richard Rusczyk, who coordinates the San Diego Math Circle, for any advice at all that he could offer a potential organizer. He immediately responded, “Enlist parent volunteers to bring in snacks each week. Then appoint one of them to oversee the whole process.” This may seem like a relatively small matter to top the list of possible pieces of advice, but it underscores a very important point: there are many more facets to a successful math circle than any single person should manage on their own. Handling the weekly task of reminding parents to bring snacks and then arranging for substitutes when the inevitable unforeseen conflict arises is a detail that can either wear down an organizer or provide the opportunity for a parent to assume a significant role within the life of the circle. Delegation is good—it transforms a potentially erosive task into a tool for enlarging the math circle community.
But delegation is also risky. An organizer may worry that it will only be a matter of time before someone forgets to bring the chips and there will be a hunger-induced riot to contend with. Some organizers may conclude that they are best able to manage all the details involved with the operation of the circle. While it is quite possible that a volunteer will drop the ball at some point, this objection is not a valid argument against delegating the job. The flaw in this reasoning lies in the assumption that an organizer can control all factors necessary to guarantee a successful math circle. It helps to remember that the correct definition of success in this setting has to do with the extent to which the kids engage in and are captivated by mathematics; the degree to which all those attending feel that they are part of an exciting and worthwhile enterprise. With this perspective in mind, the possibility of going without chips for a week fades to insignificance.
To successfully delegate a task just ACT: Ask, Convey, Thank. So set out a highly visible form at the first meeting requesting parents to sign up for one of the dates listed on the sheet and to provide an email or phone number so that a reminder can be sent. Make sure that volunteers’ duties are clearly delineated; for example, they should bring enough food and plates for twenty kids, set the food out at 2:45, then clean up at 3:15. Remind them of the golden rule of snack time: less mess is best. Instruct parents to avoid snacks like cake or popsicles, and if possible rely on a nearby water fountain instead of bringing beverages. Then ask the parent at the top of the list if they would be willing to be in charge of snack time by sending out a reminder each week and handling conflicts by arranging swaps with parents further down the list. The more clearly this person understands their responsibilities, the more smoothly the task will be handled.
The goal is to anticipate and communicate possible eventualities so thoroughly that the organizer no longer needs to devote any attention to the matter. Finally, don’t forget to express sincere appreciation at the end of the semester or year for the snack marshal’s contribution to the math circle effort. A small gift is entirely appropriate and strengthens the bond with the community.
There is a fine line between masterfully delegating chores and unloading legitimate responsibilities, determined primarily by the extent to which the task is essential to the operation of the math circle. Thus providing snacks, staffing the welcome desk, or even handling the math circle tutoring program all lend themselves well to delegation. The same is likely to be true of any extra components that the organizer chooses to incorporate into the circle, such as maintaining a lending library or holding an end of year party. (These ideas and more are outlined in the section on personalizing a math circle.) However, other tasks are best left in the hands of the coordinators. These responsibilities should probably include scheduling speakers, obtaining funding, and taking charge of publicity, for example.
Still other duties fall squarely in the grey area between tasks that should be delegated and those that should not. Or perhaps an important matter related to running the circle falls outside the organizer’s expertise. Establishing and maintaining a web site for the math circle is a perfect example of this sort of task. Not all of us have the time or skill to craft pages as comprehensive as the ones appearing at the Berkeley Math Circle web site!
In cases such as this, there is an opportunity and need for close collaboration with other individuals who have a greater stake in the math circle than a volunteer. For instance, the director’s husband created the Berkeley Math Circle site and an undergraduate on the workstudy program is paid to maintain it.
A group of ten middle school students meeting weekly on Tuesday nights to hear volunteer speakers benefits from the coherence of oversight offered by a single coordinator. On the other hand, a math circle serving a large metropolitan area offering material at three levels every Saturday morning requires several organizers with complementary responsibilities working closely together to function smoothly. Given the scope of the typical math circle, a steering committee of four or more usually becomes a bit top-heavy, although the San Jose Math Circle managed just fine with an initial group of five.
It is also not uncommon for a parent to provide the initial impetus for a math circle, in which case there is the potential for a fruitful partnership with a faculty member at a local college or university. The parent could work to contact schools, bring together students, provide snacks, and generally chaperone kids during the event. On the flip side, the faculty sponsor could arrange for speakers, reserve space, give presentations, and post information about the circle on the departmental web site. A collaboration of this sort has been quite successful at Washington University for more than five years. As a result a new mathematical opportunity exists for students in the area, and the university now has closer ties to the neighboring community as well.
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