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During the winter of 2019-20, I volunteered in my daughter's preschool classroom for the first time and unexpectedly found myself in the spotlight, holding a ukulele.
"All right, so who wants to hear the ABCs?" I excitedly asked the dozen preschoolers sitting in front of me.
"Me! Me! Me!" responded the crowd of eager children. I felt a little anxious but also kinda like a rock star — a rock star with very mediocre ukulele skills and a less-than-impressive singing voice. But it didn't matter. These kids were stoked.
I began strumming my tiny instrument. "A, B, C, D, E, F, G," I sang, and the group joined in. Kids were clapping, swaying their bodies, really feeling the music. It was a pretty awesome way to kick off a Wednesday morning. I spent the next 15 minutes playing a handful of easy songs that I knew and attempting to answer questions about the ukulele that I didn't know.
At the start of my visit, I felt a little nervous. By the end, I didn't want to leave. I was really excited about the next performance.
A few weeks later, COVID-19 shut down schools. Life was turned upside-down, everybody shifted into survival mode, and helping out in my child's classroom quickly vanished into the deepest regions of my brain.
Fast-forward nearly 18 months. My oldest daughter, Coraline, is about to enter kindergarten. My youngest daughter, Penelope, is making the transition to preschool. I recently reduced my work hours in an attempt to find more balance in life, and I'm fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
It's still not clear how or when Vermont schools will open back up to parent volunteers, but once that opportunity is there, I'll jump on it. If you're fortunate enough to have a flexible schedule that allows you to spend time at school on a weekday, I recommend you do, too.
Volunteering in my kids' classrooms excites me for a handful of reasons. First off, my oldest child is starting kindergarten and I'm feeling a range of expected emotions: happiness, fear, excitement, anxiety and so on. Although I had a very positive experience with school throughout my childhood, I've connected with many adults who describe the whole thing as fairly traumatizing. I feel confident that Coraline will adapt quickly and hope that she will thrive, but having an hour in her school each week to develop stronger relationships with her teacher, peers and other folks in the school community will put me more at ease. And it will allow me to better process challenges that might arise.
Other kids benefit, as well. According to a 2004 study published in The Journal of Educational Research by Cheryl L. Porter DeCusati and James E. Johnson, "Kindergarten children within the same classroom who have regular opportunities to work with parents on literacy-related activities perform better on word recognition at the end of the year, compared with children assigned at random who do not work with parents on these activities." In other words, being a caregiver in the classroom can have a significant impact on the larger community.
Holly McLane saw this in action. A Williston parent, she volunteered in her daughter's kindergarten class during the 2019-20 school year. She felt that it was a "rewarding experience for me and everyone involved (in my opinion). The kids were able to get more one-on-one help if needed."
Teachers notice the impact that parent volunteers have, too. According to Jackie Reno, program manager and preschool director at the Janet S. Munt Family Room in Burlington, caregiver volunteering "can allow teachers to provide more specialized approaches to smaller groups of kids or individuals while a volunteer can give more generalized attention to others." So, during that time you're reading a book or leading an art activity, you may be creating space for a teacher to better assist a child struggling to read or write. I've been an educator for the majority of my professional life, and the number of times I wished another adult were in the room to help out borders on infinity.
When I was in first grade, my mother volunteered regularly in my classroom. I saw her helping my peers time and time again. I remember feeling grateful that she was there, and thinking, Oh, cool, my mom's here to see me at school. That transitioned very quickly to Oh, cool, my mom's helping my friends who need help. I hope my daughters will look back on their early education with similar memories.
Benefits of Volunteering
Still on the fence about being a parent volunteer? Consider these benefits.
- Spend more time with your student: Those early years go by quickly, so why not take this opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child?
- Develop a strong relationship with your child's teacher: A lot of times, teachers spend more time with our children during the week than we do. It makes sense to develop a stronger relationship with this influential professional.
- Get to know your kid's peers: Has your child ever come home after having a conflict with a peer at school, looking for answers? When you know the other students in the classroom, you develop a deeper understanding of the social environment, which allows you to do a better job processing the dynamics.
- Help other children succeed: As mentioned above, facilitating activities that free up teachers allows them to better serve students who could benefit from additional support.
- Model community engagement and prioritize education: When you volunteer in the classroom, you're letting kids know education and community involvement are important.
- Boost your sense of self: Kids think adults are superheroes! When's the last time you led an activity while 10 humans stared at you in awe, then clapped and cheered when you finished? Spoiler alert: It feels awesome.