Helping at School: Tips for making volunteer experiences positive ones

Often teachers of young children extend invitations for parents to lend an extra hand helping in the classroom, assisting with projects, preparing materials, or volunteering in other class related activities (such as visits to the school library or class trips). I routinely utilized parent volunteers and welcomed parents into my classroom. The parents often told me how much they enjoyed seeing their child’s world firsthand, getting to know other children in the classroom, and observing the classroom routines and environment. The children were also delighted when their parents volunteered. Children understood how busy parents could be, and the fact that their parents took time to share in the school experience was a loving gesture that children appreciated.

As a teacher, I can tell you that most of the time the parents who volunteered were a wonderful help and benefited the classroom. Of course, sometimes there were glitches that made the parent volunteer experience a bit frustrating for me and/or for their child. To ensure a positive volunteer experience, take note of these guidelines:

Be accurate when assessing your abilities and interests. In cases where cutting, coloring, or pasting is required, for example, make sure that you are capable of completing the work accurately and neatly. I often sent materials home with students for volunteer parents to help prepare. Usually, the work was done very well. But on the occasion when a parent was too busy to be careful or not skilled in the area required, the materials that came back to school were disappointing. In addition, helping the teacher should be fun for you. Volunteering for a task that is out of your comfort zone is not enjoyable. So be honest about how you would like help the teacher.

Be on time. Teachers try to run their classrooms on a schedule. Typically there are assigned times for the class to be at specific activities (recess, lunch, P.E., music, and art, for example). Although every teacher has times when the schedule must be flexible (the needs of young children can be unpredictable), it is very frustrating to be ready for an activity and have to wait for the parent volunteer. Also, teachers often ask parents to come to the school at a specific time when the teacher is free to give the parent directions and answer questions. When a parent is late, this important conversation time is lost. Also, a child who is expecting a parent for a particular activity gets quite anxious if the parent is late.

Follow the teacher’s cues. Watch the teacher’s behavior and get a sense of the classroom “rules of operation.”  For example, some teachers want students to attempt to solve a problem before stepping in. Or a teacher may prefer to answer questions only when the child raises his hand. By observing the teacher, you will get a general sense of how to interact with the students in the classroom.

Prepare your child. Let your child know that when you are in the classroom, your job is to help the teacher and not distract him from his work. Naturally, children are excited when their parents visit the classroom. But it is nicer for the parents, the teacher, and the child when there is no disruption in the classroom routine when a volunteer is present. You will enjoy seeing your child’s strong efforts and your child will feel proud to show you how well he can work. Let your child know how exciting it will be for you to see him at his best.

Leave quickly when your job is done. Young children are often unhappy when their parent prepares to leave the classroom or volunteer situation. Prolonging the goodbyes often intensifies the sadness and can be disruptive to the other children. Quick hugs and departures work best to help children return to their school activity. Teachers are skilled at helping young children deal with their feelings and can assist children more easily if the parent has left.

Don’t expect to conference with the teacher about your child. While it may be tempting to quickly get the teacher’s ear and ask a question, this is not an appropriate time to have a conversation about your child. To begin, you may be within earshot of others (children or adults). Also, the teacher will likely be distracted in the middle of the school day or when she is with the children. Let the teacher know that you would like to speak to her and ask when it would be convenient. Schedule this conversation for a time when you are not volunteering.

Don’t get into side discussions with other parents. The noise can be disruptive and distracting to young students. Also, while you are chatting, you are not engaged with the students or helping them. In addition, side conversations are disrespectful and set a poor example for little ones.

Clean up any mess you make or see. While messes happen in early childhood classrooms, it is most helpful (and appreciated) if you pay attention to and do your best to clean up any mess up before you leave.

I hope that your are given opportunities to volunteer for your child’s classroom. It can be rewarding for you and your child, and beneficial for the teacher.

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