When my older daughter started elementary school, I asked about helping out occasionally in her classroom and I was politely, but flatly, refused. The Kindergarten teachers were wary of parents in their classroom, and, I think, did not want an at-home parent of a first-born (even though I have a Ph.D. and experience teaching at the college level – sheesh!). While a bit disappointed, I thought about what it would be like to have had volunteers “helping” in the courses I taught in the past. If the helper’s role were not well-defined and s/he might have a judgmental tendency (like, for instance, that person has a child in the class), I can understand how this “helper” might actually be more of an intrusion.
Then, this spring, my daughter’s 4th grade language arts teacher asked if I would be willing to come into her room for a day each week to work with kids on individual or small group writing projects. This teacher is charismatic, lovely, and runs a tight ship. And she is confident – she seems to have no problem with me watching her run the class. Suddenly, I had a rare window into the intimacy of the daily classroom routine. It is fascinating. The kids, the teacher, the classroom, all of which previously I knew only from my daughter’s occasional stories, came to life.
A couple things strike me from my experiences in this elementary classroom. These aren’t mindbenders, rather they are quite obvious, and I probably would not have thought much of them except that they stand out in contrast to the only other classroom I know very well (the college level classes I have taught).
1. In elementary school, you don’t find the perfectionism of a crafted lecture. Teachers follow a curriculum, sure, and plan out their time in the classroom, but they have 5-6 hours of contact time every day with their students. A lot of life goes on in a classroom, and I see my daughter’s teacher’s true art shining in the way she winds learning into all the other goings-on. I stand impressed by how a list of pointers that my daughter’s teacher presented on “how to take the state standard exams” morphed easily into a full-class exploration of autism (initiated by a question from a special-needs student in the class) and eventually wound it’s way back to “make sure you have a good breakfast before the test”. It’s refreshing to see that mix of life and learning, and I vow to somehow include more “life” to loosen up my over-prepared lectures, when next I teach.
2. The 4th grade classroom is extremely personal. Unlike a college classroom, where a professor might never once mention his/her life outside of class, or whether s/he has a family, in elementary school this information is almost mandatory – stories are constantly exchanged; teachers and students learn all sorts of things about each other and discuss them. I watched my daughter’s teacher tell several stories about her childhood one day, and make familiar references to her family members, “you remember, he’s my brother who lives in San Francisco, the one with the crazy cat and no kids”. I remember the awkward announcement I made to the last class I taught, that I was pregnant and due several weeks after the class finished – after I had gone through most of the semester with my belly swelling in front of them – and no one said anything. How different it would have been if I were teaching 4th grade.
Not only have I learned a lot this semester in fourth grade, but I found being there hugely rewarding – the kids very gratifyingly call out hellos or give me hugs (even the boys!) whenever they see me, and ask when I’ll be back to work with them again. Plus, I don’t handle behavioral or disciplinary issues, I don’t do any grading, and I see real improvements in their writing! I sincerely thank this teacher for sharing her job’s positives with me. Although my volunteer commitment significantly shrunk my workweek (those precious hours when my kids are in school), I shifted my own work to the evenings, when my kids are in bed. My husband also had a busier-than-usual semester and we spent many evenings lately working together with our laptops side-by-side at the dining room table (we always try to break for a half hour dessert and relaxation together before bed). Semesters almost always build up into a frenzy of activity as they go along, and I enjoy sharing the ebb and flow of the academic schedule with my kids. Now, as a busy semester draws to an end, I look forward to sharing the summer with them. And maybe next year I’ll be lucky enough to participate in another elementary school classroom.