Children are strange little beings indeed.
At their best they are smiling rays of light and life that uplift us in our darkest moments.
At their worst they are snotty, obnoxious little people.
Regardless of your general outlook on children, as a community we are all responsible for being good examples and mentors to the children we encounter. Our example and influence will shape not just their views of the world, but also inevitably the adults they will turn into someday.
In the past few months I’ve been blessed to have more time to spend with my family. The extra time has also allowed me to volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school.
As I attempt to improve myself as a father and a family man, I learn quite often that I am far from perfect.
I become increasingly aware that I have a lot of work to do to come close to being the man I plan to and want to be. Volunteering has become a conduit for my own improvement and development as a father and a man.
The past couple years I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to volunteer at the school. The time I’ve spent there has opened my eyes to new perspectives and different realities than what I see with my own personal blinders on.
The first thing I am learning was not even about the children. It was about the teachers.
Before my time volunteering I was like everyone else. I questioned and was suspicious of the teachers and how much they pushed and reached my daughter. I would ask myself, “What are they doing?” or, “Why aren’t they encouraging her to push past her current level?”
After spending extensive time in the classroom this year I no longer ask these questions.
One teacher has twenty-three or twenty-four kids in their class. That’s twenty-something different personalities. That’s the same number of learning styles and developmental paces. It’s also an equivalent number of diverse family situations with divorced and separated parents, ranges of incomes, and unique circumstances. There are absentee parents, abusive parents, parents who don’t pay attention, and overbearing helicopter parents.
I’ve gained a new respect and understanding for the public school educators. I have my daughter open-enrolled in one of the wealthier and highest ranked school districts, and they are still underfunded and understaffed. Despite this, the teachers do everything they can to reach and teach each individual child. They manage multiple groups in reading and math at various skill levels to provide push to those excelling as well as additional assistance to those who are struggling.
It is a delicate balance and far from a perfect system, but it is much better than trying to teach the entire class as one unit. While four or five kids would pay attention, fifteen would struggle to grasp the lesson, and seven to ten more would not even be paying attention.
Another thing I am learning is true gratitude. The teachers, counselors, and parents see what I’m doing and they consistently thank me for being there and helping. I tell them that I am happy and blessed to be able to.
After thinking about this article I plan on thanking them more. I see the teachers doing the best they can to reach children and their approximately ninety second attention spans. I see them teaching the district mandated curriculum as well as mindfulness, kindness, responsibility, and community.
I observed the school’s counselor, Eric Swan’s, presentation during one of my volunteer shifts. His presentation was entitled “Gratitude,” which is ironic in terms of the takeaway i’m speaking of here.
Mr. Swan separated the children into groups of four. Then he had the children say kind things about the others in the group. He made sure to instruct them to not focus on the superficial; for instance they were told not to say things like “you have nice shoes” or “I like your hair.” When their turns arrived the children said beautiful and thoughtful things about each other. They were inclusive and did a wonderful job appreciating the diversity of their peers.
What Eric did next was even more powerful to witness.
He had the children repeat the exercise, but with a different target of their kindness. He had them focus on their own selves.
The children were instructed to share what they were grateful for in themselves. Mr. Swan asked what they liked about themselves. Many of the children had a much more difficult time coming up with positive things to say.
Eventually they all did. They were able to come up with self-appreciation. It did not come from a pretentious or narcissistic place either. It was a wonderful exercise in building self-confidence and improving self-esteem.
I was lucky to witness the lesson.
After the lesson ended I approached Eric and thanked him for his service to the students and for his lesson. I went on to tell him that I had nothing like that when I was in school and wished I had.
He told me basically the same thing I tell others when they thank me for volunteering, “It’s what I do.” He said he doesn’t teach math or science. Emotional intelligence and mindfulness teaching are his calling.
I am truly grateful for all the teachers and school employees like Mr. Swan in my daughter’s school. I plan to express it as often as I can.
Eric is only able to come into the class one Thursday afternoon per month.* There is only one school counselor in a school with over three hundred students.
I haven’t only learned from the faculty during my volunteering. I learned as much or more from the children as well.
The most powerful thing I’ve learned from the kids is their sense of community and camaraderie.
My daughter’s school is very communicative about their core values. It is summed up in the acronym L.E.A.P. L.E.A.P. stands for leadership, empathy, accountability, and pride.
The students are taught the acronym beginning in kindergarten. They reinforce it through referrals for positive behavior. They are recognized for those referrals over loudspeaker announcements. They even get called into the office for a prize at the end of the school day.
The prizes are nothing big or outlandish. I’ve seen a kid coming back from the office with a school logo’d pencil. My daughter has come home with small toy dinosaurs.
Once in a rare while a student a student will exemplify one of the L.E.A.P. values enough to be presented with a special prize. The special prize will be a small charm letter that can be seen worn on ball chain necklaces on many of the children throughout the school. The letters will be one of the four letters in L.E.A.P. depending on the core value they were be recognized for. Upon the awarded of the coveted letters the child’s picture will be taken and featured on a monitor in the school’s main hallway near the cafeteria.
The students share such an immense of pride in doing the right thing. They celebrate others when a peer gets one of these awards even if they themselves had not.
This behavior goes beyond the L.E.A.P. awards. Recently the fifth graders participated in student council elections. A son of our friends ran for a representative at large position. He ran a campaign and took his candidacy very seriously, but he lost. Upon losing he exhibited a very positive internal response to the ordeal. He said he enjoyed giving it a shot. He was disappointed to lose, but he was happy for his classmates who had won.
Through watching the children I have also learned it is possible to create a community where bullying is not tolerated. Before seeing the children interact with one another and the teachers I had not thought this was possible. I have always chalked up dealing with bullies at school as one of life’s lessons. I have seen it as one of those ‘everyone needs a good punch in the face every now and then’ kind of things.
There is no room for bullying in a culture like the one at this school. If a student mistreats others then the accountability comes from that student’s peers well before it needs to come from a teacher or administrator. There are the occasional incidents of children getting picked on, but those incidents are short lived and few and far between.
Seeing a culture like this so deeply embedded at the school makes me rethink much of my preconceived notions of the world. Perhaps workplace cultures can exist like this? There may possibly be magical businesses where the employees and bosses treat each other with respect and appreciation? Maybe neighborhoods and communities can be set up similarly? Is it possible that even our government can be made up of people who embody the values of leadership, empathy, accountability, and pride.
I could discuss many more learnings I’ve taken away from my time volunteering with the kids, but I’ve gone on long enough. There is one final learning I’d like to communicate.
Above all the previous learnings I’ve mentioned, one is the most apparent and painful learning I’ve absorbed. The schools need more volunteers.
As I’ve stated earlier, there are not enough teachers to accomplish the lofty goals of teaching our young people all the textbook knowledge and life lessons they need to become the productive, positive members of society they will need to be in the future. The current staffing at the schools barely allows the teachers to scrape by until the end of the school year, semester, or even the end of the week.
If you have a little bit of time each week, know this, your local school needs you.
I’m a big advocate of replacing negative habits with positive ones to improve ourselves and our lives. What better way to do this than volunteering?
If you have ever wondered if there is something you can do at your local school, trust me, there’s plenty. Volunteering opportunities include, but are not limited to, assisting teachers in the classroom, chaperoning field trips, participating in special events and holiday parties, and filing paperwork for the teachers. If you have even a small amount of time just ask the teachers or administrators at the local school. They will have no shortage of things that need to get done that they are unable to get to due to being spread too thin.
I don’t believe there is any school out there that is not in the exact same situation as my daughter’s school.
Schools consistently ask for money through fundraising events and direct ask campaigns. They need those additional funds. That money accounts for many of the activities, events, and additional in-class supplies and support that the general school budget does not accommodate. They also need your time.
Time spent is as valuable, and perhaps more valuable, than that money.
I understand that not everyone has a work schedule that allows for time off during the school day to volunteer. I get it. However, many companies give employees that opportunity to have a service day. A service day is a paid day off where instead of going to work, you can participate in some sort of community service. My old work gave me one of these service days per calendar year.
The first year I volunteered with the phys. ed. teacher for the day. I got to play dodge ball all day. Coach Paul Lealman got to rest. He appreciated it. The second year I volunteered during field day. I set up the field day with Coach, the art teacher, and the principal. There was just four of us setting up for an entire school’s field day.
While the field day events took place I manned the slack-line station. Children from five to twelve years old held my hand as they experienced a sense of accomplishment crossing the twenty-five or so feet of bouncy tight-rope. Only two kids made it across by themselves that day. If I had not been there Coach L. would have had to scrap the event, or if he proceeded with it, many of the children would have fallen off the slack-line and experienced failure at the least, and pain and possibly broken bones and concussions at the worst.
Both were such fulfilling experiences. They had such an impact to my sense of self that this year I have committed to two days per week spent in the classroom. On Thursdays I help with Math. On Fridays I help with spelling and filing paperwork. Additionally, I helped organize and set-up the largest fundraiser of the year with my wife and several other parents, and chaperoned a field trip to a local nature preserve.
Sure, I could be doing other things with my time. I could be making money or doing other productive things. Instead I choose to volunteer. I can feel how much the school needs and appreciates my presence. It doesn’t just make me feel good, it is making me a better person and a better father.
I recommend trying it out for yourself as well. Go volunteer.
Maybe a school is not the right place to volunteer for you? There are retirement homes, parks and open space clean-ups, city and township committees, as well as countless other volunteer opportunities. Your community is waiting for you. You just have to make the time for them.
Thanks for reading this piece. I hope it inspires you to improve your community, and yourself in the process, as I am. It is one of the most special things I have ever experienced in my life. I hope you will have similar experiences and share them with others as well.
*Correction Eric Swan is in the class two times per month. Sorry, Eric. It’s still not enough, but I know you’d be in with the kids everyday if you could.