I volunteered regularly in my oldest daughter’s kindergarten class this past year. I didn’t do it just to be a good member of my community. My primary motivation is my daughter. When my husband and I first began discussing our children’s school options, and when we began to lean toward public education, a good friend who is a retired elementary teacher encouraged us to get involved and did school volunteering when possible. She said it’s a great way to learn about what goes on at school and whether a particular school is a good fit for our family.
|Hanging with my girl on field trip day.|
So last fall I filled out paperwork, paid for a background check, and got a volunteer photo ID badge through our school district. I enrolled my younger daughter in a preschool class that meets one morning a week, so she could be cared for while I was at her sister’s school.
Monday mornings had a routine all their own this past school year. After walking Megan to kindergarten and driving Abigail to preschool, I head back to Megan’s school with my volunteer badge clipped to my jacket. I sign in at the office and make my way past the gallery of student paintings outside the art classroom, through a long hallway with windows looking out on a courtyard with a small pond and raised garden beds.
Kindergarten has been in session for about 25 minutes when I reach Megan’s classroom, and the students are seated on a colorful carpet printed with the alphabet, while the teacher reads a picture book and discusses the plan for the upcoming day. I sit quietly near the kidney bean-shaped table at the back of the room and take in the scene. This is one of my favorite parts about volunteering. I get a rare glimpse into Megan’s world, a chance to see how the teacher leads her class, and how my daughter interacts with her peers. The teacher gently calls out students who aren’t paying attention and listens as other students answer questions about the book she just read. When a kid at the back of the group turns to me and points to his shoe, I help him tie it. Many kids know me as “Megan’s mom.”
When time on the carpet is done, the class gathers books to return to the library and lines up for a trip to the restroom. The teacher hands me an alphabet BINGO game, a letter puzzle, or a rhyming game and I head to the hallway with two or three students. We sit on the tile floor and work on letter identification and sounds. After we work through a game, which takes 10 to 15 minutes, I send them back to class and get a new group.
Megan walks by on the way back from the restroom and hugs me and tells me she loves me. One of the girls I’m working with smiles at the scene and says softly, “She’s so cute.”
A building aide – a tall African American man who has a friendly rapport with students and whose claim to fame is that he once played professional football – walks past and a boy in my group calls out, “Do you have any gum for me today?” The aide says, “Are you learning?” The boy answers, “I is learning.” The aide laughs and tells him he has some work to do, and he promises gum later on one condition: “Don’t chew it at school.”
|Breakfast at school during Muffins with Mom.|
One morning, the teacher informs me she has a new student who doesn’t know all his letters. She sends me to work with him and one other student. We dump out a bag of colored foam letters and begin to play, lining them up in order, spelling our names, sorting by color and naming the letters in each color group, and making color patterns and naming the letters in our patterns. We work for a long time, and by the end of the morning I feel a sense of accomplishment.
That satisfaction in doing something helpful and useful is nice, but it’s not my primary reason for school volunteering. I volunteer out of self-interest, because I want to know about Megan’s school day. I’ve gotten to know Megan’s teacher and classmates in a deeper way. I know which students are at the top of the class and which ones need extra help. I know which students are good listeners and which ones are impulsive and talk out of turn. I know who is smart-mouthed and who is sweet. I know which students come from attentive homes and which ones don’t get educational support from their families. When Megan comes home talking about what someone said or did that day, I can connect faces and personalities to names.
|Sisters playing at the school carnival.|
I’ve also seen firsthand how the day is structured. I see how discipline is handled. I interact with office staff, and I see other classes and teachers interacting with each other as they pass my little group in the hall. My daughter is a good student, so she doesn’t always get sent to me for extra help, but this time is still valuable. For that brief time on Monday mornings, I am part of my daughter’s world and I can see how she navigates her school day.
The ways in which I have been involved in school volunteering may change as my daughters grow older. I will meet Megan’s first grade teacher this fall and learn how I can help with the class. I may not always tutor small groups of students, especially as the years progress and the academic work gets more complex. There are still plenty of opportunities to get involved through PTA projects, class parties, and field trips. I know one grandmother at Megan’s school who helps shelve books in the library once a week. It’s all important work.I also stay involved by attending as many events as possible, from special breakfasts with parents to field day to monthly PTA meetings. Any time the doors are open to me as a parent, I like to be there. It’s where Megan spends 35 hours a week, so why wouldn’t I want to know as much about her school as possible?
By keeping one foot in the school day and its culture, I feel a sense of community and ownership in Megan’s education. I also see that my husband and I made a good choice when we decided to give our neighborhood school a try. Kindergarten was an adjustment for all of us – for Megan, for me as I go through my days without Megan, and for Abigail who now spends her days without her sibling. I feel better knowing that I can be involved in Megan’s day in a small way.