Last year, I decided to help out in my daughter’s grade one class on Science Day. I figured this would be a pretty easy gig on a Thursday morning; I’d probably supervise the kids building Lego structures, or we’d put an egg in a crate and hope it didn’t break when we dropped it. Maybe we’d do that weird experiment of turning a potato into a battery.
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Much to my surprise, the teacher broke us into small groups and bellowed the following instructions: “You have 10 minutes to build a stool using only the newspaper and tape you’ve been provided. The stool must be strong enough to support my weight. Start… now!”
Suddenly I was up against the clock, thrust into a G-rated episode of MacGyver. I scanned the wide-eyed faces of my team members and quickly realized I wasn’t going to get much help from this ragtag collection of six-year-olds. I frantically started rolling newspaper and the kids jumped into action, using their tiny fingers to hold the paper in place as I wrapped it haphazardly with tape. None of them came up with any brilliant ideas for actually building the stool, so our fate rested squarely on my shoulders. (I think the main goal of this project was to foster teamwork, but instead, our crew learned the value of delegating tasks to people in senior positions.)
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As the time allotted for our assignment ticked away and expired, I wasn’t feeling very confident about the structural integrity of our stool. It looked like a papier mâché swan that would collapse under even my daughter’s slight frame. But in a stunning turn of events, the teacher sat down and she didn’t fall. It actually worked! Our group was so excited we all cheered and gave each other high-fives.
Volunteering at school has a way of making you feel like a giant. And not just an emotional giant. It’s like you’re Gulliver visiting Lilliput and the tiny natives have taken you prisoner. You’re trapped once you sit in one of their miniature desks, because it takes you about 10 minutes to wriggle out, and while you’re in captivity, they pepper you with questions: “What’s your name?”; “What’s your job?”; “What’s your favourite colour?”; “Do you know you have some grey hair on the side of your head?”
I volunteered the first time (I try not to refer to it as the “stool incident”) because I wanted to get involved in my daughter’s classroom and score some brownie points with the teacher. I also figured I could meet some of the kids my daughter talked about at home (“So that’s the Avery who’s been pulling your hair at recess!”). I didn’t realize how unusual it was to see a dad at school, but it seems like 95 percent of volunteers are stay-at-home moms. So whenever I roll in, there are always prolonged stares and whispers about this infiltrator in the classroom.
You do need to be careful what you sign up for, because the school system is so overtaxed teachers will gladly accept an extra hand with pretty much anything. I once spent an afternoon cutting circles out of cardboard for a kindergarten teacher in what felt like a strange adult sweatshop. I‘ve also helped out with classroom literacy programs, although that can be very awkward. Think of it from the child’s perspective: “Please go with this complete stranger into the hallway where he’ll gently encourage you to read Dr. Seuss books out loud.” It can feel like an excruciatingly long five minutes to both of you.
You also need to be wary when you put your hand up for field trip supervision—you may find yourself spending the afternoon at the local sewage-treatment plant. True story.
When they’re young, your kids are proud to parade you around when you make an appearance. But once they get a little bit older, they probably won’t want you hanging around their school at all, and may only communicate through sign language (e.g. mouthing “Go away!”). At that point, volunteering is more about parental espionage than helping the teachers out. You’d arm-wrestle the other parents for a chance to chaperone the school dance so you could check out who your child is with when the slow songs start playing. And when you do eventually see, you’ll probably want to sit down somewhere and cry. Maybe on an old stool made out of newspaper and tape.
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