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), tugging at the stitches in my shoulder (minor operation this week).

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

Obviously I’d love to train as a teacher, 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, would mean abandoning people who need me. I don’t have that ethical choice.

In addition, my children are no longer toddlers, so whatever job I do now needs to be a proper career move, which might mean no more 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. Every time a new teacher or TA starts work and I can’t, I feel the tug. 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 struggled not to cry. 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 is a life-affirming experience.

I love ALL OF IT. Even the tidying up.

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 expected to leave promptly: to read after registration but go home after phonics, to take them swimming but disappear before lunch… 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. This can be excruciating when you see a child struggling with the change, and you know you could provide continuity – if only anyone thought you were capable, or trainable.

I once watched a child with behavioural issues struggle with a transition. I understood his anger when we met at the school gate and he did not understand why I was no longer there for him. As a volunteer, you can’t explain why to either the child or the parent; those communications are for school to manage. You have no authority or formal skill; you can only offer to help the school, and step back. But I knew that child. Watching this sent me screaming to the local college careers office, only to be told that I would be an ideal candidate, but then revisit what I already knew about my own family logistics.

As a volunteer, you’re not considered a professional – because you aren’t one, at least not here.  Teachers may never see 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 – and could be forgiven for imagining us all watching daytime TV 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 asked @tes who kindly tweeted the query:

Reading with children is, apparently, useful. So is fundraising. Limited things are useful. Lim-it-ed.

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 definitely train as a teacher – my experience and qualification were a good foundation.

I asked a friend, a head, about the possibility of teaching, and we talked about workload, assessments, budgets, and politics. The changing goalposts, budgetary restrictions, politics, and unpaid overtime all felt familiar; they span industries. It all felt right.

Walking away feels wrong. But I need to look after my family. If I could work as a TA and train on the job, I’d do it – but the TA roles are being taken by qualified teachers. Our local school offered an on-the-job degree in child development that would have put me in heaven, but I was told that this is for TAs who want a degree; I already have a degree, so it’s “not for me”.

I’m a mum, a volunteer, and a scientist. Not useful? There’s a point when you have to walk away. I banged on the door till my fingers bled: enough, now.

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.

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