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 op).

‘What are you doing?’

I explained that my GP appointment on Friday clashes with reading 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?’

Well, obviously, I’d love to – but I can’t. Part of my life involves helping someone manage a chronic, incurable illness. Retraining intensively for a year without income is not an ethical choice for me. Worse, as my children grow, increasing my day job might mean no time to volunteer. This breaks my heart, but it’s 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?  

Even so, every time a new teacher or TA starts work, I feel it. On the first day of autumn term, I dropped off my children and was about to gallop to work when I passed Reception class, realised I wasn’t going in, and couldn’t walk away. 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 with them?

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

Even though the volunteer role is limited, 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 the joys of studying their 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, and also 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 — adults encouraging, soothing and steering small children.

I love ALL OF IT. Even the tidying up.

In the middle of my life,

I have fallen in love…

with a school?

But, a reality check: it’s a one-way relationship.

No matter how much I love being there, I don’t belong. I’m not a colleague or team member. I’ve received no training. I’m invited to help with specific tasks, then expected to leave: 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 settle the group. This can be excruciating if you see a child struggling with the change, and you know you could provide continuity – if only you were included.

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 couldn’t understand why I was no longer there for him. As a volunteer, it’s not appropriate to explain why to either the child or the parent; those communications must go via school. You have no authority; you can only 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 forced to revisit what I already knew about my own family logistics.

As a volunteer, you’re not a professional – no matter that elsewhere you may be presenting at conferences, managing teams, studying, or writing reports.

Given the limitations, are volunteers even useful?

I asked @tes who kindly tweeted the query:

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 friendly team, but you’re not a member. You’re 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 friend, a primary head, about the possibility of teaching, and we talked. The changing goalposts, budgetary restrictions, politics, and unpaid overtime all span industries. Everything felt familiar and right.

Walking away felt wrong. I looked at options; perhaps I could work as a TA and train on the job? But the TA roles are being taken by qualified teachers who want time with their own families. The school provided an on-the-job degree in child development that would have been fantastic (amazing/incredible/wonderful), but it was for TAs who wanted a degree. I’m not a TA, and have a degree; I was advised it was “not for me”. I’m an experienced mum, volunteer, and scientist who adores kids and believes in education, but it’s not enough and I have nothing else to give. Killer moment: time to walk away.

I have a career that welcomes me every time I turn to it. My medical colleagues have welcomed and included me for over twenty years and, in parallel, a fiction writer invited me to be a writing buddy. I’m a working mum. This is not a time for daydreams or procrastination; it’s a chance to build a useful and successful career. 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, and I can’t wait for Friday.

Leave a reply