After ten years of volunteering in school

This morning the OH gaped as he caught me in front of the mirror, purple-faced (carotid artery taking a squeeze), picking stitches from a minor operation out of my own shoulder.

‘What are you doing?’

I explained that my GP appointment on Friday clashes with my invitation to read with a KS1 class in school, and I’d rather pull out my own stitches than miss it.

He pulled out the stitches for me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to train as a teacher?’

Of course I’d like to train as a teacher. Obviously, yes. But it’s a pained, reluctant “yes” because it’s futile: yes, but I can’t. Part of my personal life involves helping someone manage a chronic, incurable illness. Retraining intensively for a year, without income, is not an ethical choice for me.

Also, now my children are no longer toddlers, I need to kick-start my writing career, and more challenging projects might mean no time to volunteer. This is sad, but also a first-world problem. People around the world are struggling to survive and I have to give up a non-paying hobby that I love?  

Still it stings. On the first day of autumn term, I dropped off my children, received my first client email before I’d left the school grounds (yey!), and was about to gallop to work when I passed Reception class, realised I wasn’t going in, and burst into tears. Cue a backtrack. I snuck back in, helped take 90 children on a trip, 25 to swimming lessons, and now… I’m pulling out my own stitches so that I can read on Friday?

Meanwhile I’m also working every waking hour because I’m still running my actual career — the job for which I’m actually qualified, the one that actually pays for food.

Beautiful writing
Beautiful writing

Even though the volunteer role is so limited it’s practically limbo, I’m not sure how to stop. Initially I just wanted to be with my children, then enjoyed being with all the children, then discovered hands-on child development. The vibrancy, the academics — literacy, numeracy, sport, and social development. Special needs, starting to understand dyslexia, autism, bereavement, and various physical disorders. Seeing incredible abilities in every child. Their wonderful openness; their constant seeking of experiences, boundaries, and friendship. Their individuality. I love their expressions as you walk in; curious, challenging, friendly. When they run up to grab your arm, bursting to tell you, show you, include you in their creativity; their stories, pictures and dances. I love when they do as they’re asked. I love when they don’t, the sideways glance of “what can I get away with?” Trying not to laugh when I need to be assertive. I love helping the ones who don’t automatically walk on the pavement or sit in a circle, their energy crying out to be channelled into creativity or adventure.

Most of all, I love the expression on their faces when they engage. The child who doesn’t want to read — when you peer out of the window at a tree, and ask, ‘Have you heard of Tattybogle?’ and they forget everything else for a fabulous, curious microsecond.

Happiness on a page

I love it when children who struggled to read complete a chapter. I love their first swimming strokes; love watching their faces light up. I also love kneeling before a disappointed child, watching their expression change as they realise they can try again, and that it’s OK to have to try a few times to “get” something. I love watching them foster resilience, fanning tiny flames of determination, trying again.

And the teachers. Watching adults encouraging, soothing and steering small children with skill is a life-affirming experience.

I love ALL OF IT. Even the tidying up, dammit.

But, a reality check: no matter how much I love being there, I don’t belong. I’m not a colleague or team member. I’m not trained and my limitations exceed my authority. I’m invited to help with specific tasks then leave promptly: to read after registration but go home after phonics, to take them swimming but disappear before lunch… tiny actions followed by automatic dismissal while everyone else continues. Sometimes (e.g. the first week of the school year) a volunteer needs to step away to let the children’s new teacher know and settle the group (even if you believe you can help; this isn’t always easy).

On which note, there are two professional divides at school. The obvious first is that the teachers are at work, while parent volunteers are not. There’s also the second little matter of the teachers quite possibly never seeing parent volunteers in any professional capacity. Just like doctors mainly see sick folk, and so could be forgiven for assuming the public is a miserable pile of infestation, teachers mostly see whichever parent is hauling kids to and from school, with their rumpled hair and yoghurt-coated jeans. So teachers could be forgiven for imagining us all watching daytime TV with a fistful of Haribo while they educate our children. They don’t routinely see us presenting to a conference full of delegates, or managing teams, or writing reports.

Given this, are volunteers even useful? Are they gold dust, or more effort than they are worth? I don’t know, so today I asked @tes who kindly tweeted the query:

The parent volunteer in t-shirt and jeans has to adopt the professional standards of the school. It’s do-able, but it can feel strange to be “working” with people who don’t see you as a professional. It’s a different dynamic than you’d get in a shared work environment.

Being a classroom parent volunteer is a distinct and offbeat role. You work with people for a decade, but you’re not their colleague. You support a warm, friendly team for a decade, but you’re not a member. You’re made welcome, but you don’t belong. It’s heartwarming, and heartbreaking. 

Right now, I’m perched between two different worlds, fully achieving neither, and feeling like Whale 52.

I asked a careers advisor at college, described what I’d been doing. She said I should train as a teacher – my experience and qualification were a good foundation.

I asked a friend, a headteacher of a different school, about the possibility of teaching, and we talked about workload, assessments, budgets, and politics). The changing goalposts, budgetary restrictions, politics, unpaid overtime all felt familiar; they span industries. Even the bad bits just feel like a challenge.

Walking away feels wrong. But I need to look after my family.

Meanwhile, for ten years I’ve failed to secure the time to write, and now I have it. My writing career waited faithfully for me and shows immediate signs of blooming — the work request on the first day of term felt like an omen. I can support my family by doing a job I love, with medical colleagues who welcomed me back as if I never left — and a fiction writer has invited me to be a writing buddy.

I’m a working mum and it’s time to grab this chance to work and write. This is not a time for daydreams or procrastination; it’s a chance to create the most useful and successful career that I can. Regarding exactly where that takes me, the jury’s still out but once the verdict’s in, I’m not allowed to look back.

In other news, my shoulder has stopped hurting now, and I can’t wait for Friday.

I’m not sure I could stop, even if I wanted to. Maybe it’s just my destiny to remain where I don’t belong.


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