When my son was in grade three, he tended to act out when he was bored in class. I lobbied his school to offer more challenging material for him and some other kids who were similarly restless. In response, the school suggested I run a weekly gifted class for these kids and, God help me, I bit.
One of our first exercises was “puddle math” — we had to figure out all the different ways to measure an irregularly shaped puddle. Math makes me sweat to begin with, and the only thing I could think of was wrapping a cloth tape measure around the perimeter (I felt very proud that I remembered that word). Let me just say there are many more ways to measure a puddle.
It went downhill from there. I just didn’t get the way these kids thought. I held out for about three sessions and then went back to going on field trips and helping out in the classroom. In the end, though, I did learn an important rule for volunteering at school: Try to pick something that you’re comfortable doing. If you have a kitty with a taste for small rodents, don’t agree to take Hammy the hamster home for the weekend; instead, use your artistic flare and help out in art class. Read on for more basic do’s and don’ts for classroom volunteering.
Do show up a little early. Arrive at your volunteer job 10 minutes in advance, suggests Elaine Alexander, principal of Withrow Avenue Public School in Toronto. You’ll have time to touch base with the teacher and get instructions, or (in the case of puddle math) figure out how you want to tackle your task.
Do be flexible. Put yourself at the teacher’s service and do what she asks. You won’t win points for throwing a hissy fit because you expected to help with science class and now you’re cutting out paper snowflakes. And look for things to do. “There’s nothing worse than a wallflower,” says Alexander. It defeats the purpose of classroom volunteering if the teacher spends all of her time managing the parent volunteers.
Do share your strengths. Carole Porter, assistant principal at Nellie McClung Elementary School in Calgary, sends home a note in September inviting parents to contact the school if they have special abilities or passions, whether baking, carpentry or painting. Teachers then call on the parents to add depth to class discussions, teach new skills or prepare for school events. “We have a group in grade three studying rocks and minerals,” says Porter, “and a geologist parent is coming in to give a little talk.”
Do spread the love. “We know you want to be with your child,” says Porter. “But you’re there to help the teacher and all the children.” Cathy Cassidy, volunteer coordinator for Astral Drive Elementary School in Dartmouth, NS, admits that her seven-year-old, Patrick, really angles for her attention when she’s in his classroom. But in a recent math class, she offered him some initial instructions and told him if he had any difficulty he could ask her or the teacher. “Then I turned to help another little guy who was having trouble.”
Do defer to the teacher. When Cassidy volunteers at school, she makes it clear that the teacher is the boss, and all questions must be directed to her. If a child approaches to request a washroom visit, she tells him: “I’m a volunteer here. You should really ask your teacher.” Why? The teacher may use a bathroom buddy system and she knows which kids say, “I hafta pee” as an excuse to get out of class. As well, says Cassidy, “if I send a kid to the washroom, the teacher may have no idea where he went.”
Don’t just arrive without notice. Even if you’ve been a regular volunteer over the years, teachers may be put off if you simply poke your head into the classroom and say, “I’ve got the day off, so I thought I’d volunteer.” Instead, send a note or email a couple of days beforehand to confirm — that way the teacher can figure out a way to put you to work.
Don’t be a blabbermouth. When you’re helping out in the classroom, you become privy to all sorts of sensitive information, including how children score on their tests and whether they behave in class. Keep it to yourself, warns Cassidy. “At our school, one parent complained that she found out what level her child was reading at through another parent,” she says. “That’s not right.”
Don’t avoid a bilingual class if you’re unilingual. There are lots of things you can do in class that don’t require you to speak, says Alexander, whose school offers a French immersion program. “Most of our volunteers come in for science and art,” she says. “And most parents can sit down and help a child read, even if their French isn’t great. You might even learn something.”
Don’t play the disciplinarian. When one boy misbehaved badly on an outing to the theatre that Alexander helped with, a parent volunteer gently pushed him down into his seat. This prompted a big brouhaha later, when his parents found out. If you run into problems with a child, Alexander suggests, quietly beckon the teacher over and let her deal with it. Don’t order the child to “stop that,” and don’t in any way touch him.
Don’t give up volunteering because you can’t be there every week. There are plenty of things that you can do to help both inside the classroom and out, points out Porter. Some parents do classroom phoning or help out in the library. “Whatever you do, you get a flavour for the school and feel part of the community when you volunteer.”
Field trip etiquette
Heading out with a group? Here are three golden rules to keep everyone safe and happy:
1. Stay with your group at all times. “Sure you may want to catch up with the other parents,” says Carole Porter, assistant principal at Nellie McClung Elementary School in Calgary. “That’s OK on the bus or when you’re all together eating lunch. But during the activity, your responsibility is the group of children you’re accompanying.”
2. Participate. Kids are inspired by your enthusiasm. If you’re interested, involved and full of questions, they will take their cue from you, says Porter. “Our children bring sketchbooks with them no matter what trip they are on. We give parents a sketchbook too.”
3. Follow the rules of the classroom. If the teacher is trying to line the children up and bring down the noise level, it’s not really kosher to mill around gabbing with the other parents.