Yesterday, I helped four Year 1 boys research 'toys and games from the past'. Last week I got very competitive playing maths games with Year 4 students. Next week I will be doing some one-on-one work , listening to young children read. I have little friends all over Primary who wave to me and share stories of their weekends, and a sneaky insider's knowledge of day-to-day school life.
I am not a teacher, just one one of many parents who volunteer some of their time each week to help in class.
Never did I imagine I would be one of them; after many years tackling early literacy and numeracy with my own children as a stay-at-home mum, I was only too pleased to hand this task over to somebody else once my children started school and I returned to work. But when I received a class email calling for parent volunteers and found myself with a free morning or two, I thought I'd have a go. I'm very glad I did.
As a parent teacher helper, I get a better understanding of what happens in class - from the teaching methods to the social dynamic between the children. I witness first-hand how my children behave (or not) at school, get to know the other children, teachers and parents, and enjoy many lively discussions with the children I work with.
Research from Child Trends indicates that parental involvment in school is linked to better grades and fewer behavioural problems in students, particularly in Primary School.
But it's not just the parent helpers and their children who benefit.
Helping out in class helps build a stronger school community. It allows more children to have important one-on-one help and attention (eg with reading and maths drills). It frees the teacher up to focus on small groups or individuals. It gives students greater social confidence and experience of diversity as they work with different adults.
And yes, dads, that includes you. Boys particularly benefit from seeing men join in with classroom learning activities.
How can I help?
The amount and complexity of parental help required in the classroom varies from school to school and class to class. Not all teachers want it or need it. Others will schedule weekly rosters and some will only require occasional help. Teachers will usually send out an email or notice to parents asking for classroom help if it is needed. However, there is no harm contacting your child's teacher directly to offer your support and help, should you not receive such a request.
In-class activities parents may help with include:
- one-on-one targeted learning - eg listening to children read, repetitive tasks, maths drills
- small group work focusing on a specific task - eg reading and talking about a book, spelling sorts, maths games, supervising computer exercises
- activities where extra adults are needed - arts and craft, sport, drama, baking
- sharing specialist skills or giving talks - eg origami, another language, mime skills, talking about being a fire fighter or what it's like working in a factory
- school excursions and incursions
Unless you are a Blue Card holder, you will only be permitted to help with the class your child attends. You may be asked to read and agree to a list of school policies/guidelines and sign a registration form in advance of volunteering.
Parent volunteers are not usually required to have any prior teaching skills or specialist knowledge (unless they are in class specifically to give a talk or share a skill). A small number of schools do, however, give parents training in the specific teaching strategies used in class.
Typically parents will arrive 5-10 minutes before they are required, the teacher will outline the activities they will be supervising and talk them through any materials and exercise sheets that will be used.
Top Tips for Parent Helpers
- Be prompt and reliable
Contact the teacher and give ample notice if you are unable to make it. If a teacher has planned activities requiring supervision by parent volunteers, it can be difficult to restructure a lesson at short notice.
- Comply with school regulations
Ensure you are aware of and follow any policies on signing in, dress code etc
- Follow instructions
Make sure you understand what the teacher wants you to do. Ask for clarification if you are unsure.
- Dress professionally
You don't need to wear a business suit but avoid strappy or low-cut tops, ripped jeans and cut-off shorts. If you need a benchmark, look at what the teachers wear.
- Mind your language
No swearing or blaspheming - particularly in a Christian school!
- Be supportive of the teacher
Don't question their teaching methods or correct them in front of the children.
- Be enthusiastic and encouraging ...
Some children have a fear of reading, maths or just learning in general. You can make it enjoyable for them with your energy and positive outlook.
- .. but don't play the clown
Remember, you are there to help the teacher, not to be a distraction.
- Don't expect to be assigned activities with your own child
You can do that at home anyway. While teachers will often ask you to supervise a group containing your child, your help is more beneficial to the other children in the class who don't usually have that privilege.
- Defer to the teacher for toilet enquiries and discipline issues
Don't give children permission to go to the toilet without having them check with the teacher first. If you have an unruly child who won't behave, send them to the teacher rather than trying to discipline them yourself.
- Don't demonise your own child
It goes without saying that shouldn't show favouritism towards your own child while helping in class. But it is often easy to swing the other way and come down hardest on your own in an attempt to demonstrate your 'non-favouritism'. Try to be kind and fair so that you don't inadvertently upset your child.
- Don't be a gossip
What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. Don't be tempted to discuss children's ability levels or behaviour with others. This should be confidential. It's hurtful and damaging when a child tells another, "My mum says you're rubbish at maths!"
- Have fun!
Volunteering in class can be extremely rewarding. It will introduce you to other precious little souls who you will care about and cheer on as they move up through school. Enjoy!
Do you help out in your child's classroom? Share your experiences below.