As states continue to slash education budgets to accommodate declining tax revenues, schools respond by trying to squeeze even more out of their beleaguered teachers: class sizes grow, planning periods are cut, each student gets less attention.
What can we do? Project Appleseed, a non-profit public education advocate, is asking parents across the country to lend a hand in their child’s school.
“Volunteers and adult assistants in classrooms make a huge difference, especially with schools and teachers under so much stress,” says Paddy Eger, a veteran teacher, parent trainer and volunteer, and author of Educating America 101: Strategies for Adult Assistants in K-8 Classrooms (www.paddyeger.com).
“With a little training and a handful of strategies, most adults can effectively assist both teachers and students," Eger says. “One hour a month or a week helping students is a small investment of time that has big returns.”
Sometimes, however, the best-intentioned volunteers become yet another pair of hands tugging for attention on the teacher’s sleeve. Volunteers working with small groups of students, such as tutoring sessions, also risk wasting precious instructional time if they’re not prepared and don’t know how to manage the group.
In more than 20 years as a primary and intermediate grade teacher, Eger has developed a number of simple strategies that allow volunteers to both maximize their usefulness and minimize distractions to the teacher. Her suggestions don’t replace training provided by the school, since that’s tailored to the teachers’ needs, but they will greatly enhance time spent working directly with students.
These tips are:
- If you have questions for the teacher, schedule a meeting that’s not at a time when students are in the classroom. Do not expect to meet with the teacher unannounced for “just a minute.” Also, if the teacher provides materials for an activity, don’t expect him or her to walk you through it. Take time to read the directions and gather supplies days before your classroom visit.
- Establish a consistent meeting place: If your group will meet regularly, ask the teacher before your first visit to help you establish a place that you can use every time you visit. Nothing kills an activity faster than spending valuable time looking for a place to work.
- Choose your seat wisely: Don’t sit at one end of a rectangular table. Sitting in the middle seat along one side allows you to see all of the students and reach out to touch their work. It also makes you part of the group, and allows you to speak in a softer voice. For round tables, sit so you – not the students – face nearby tables or other distractions.
- To help children become active listeners, don’t repeat questions: If the student says he doesn’t understand the question, ask him to repeat what he thinks he heard. If the student is still confused, ask another student to rephrase the question. Once again, ask the first student to repeat what he just heard.
- Be prepared for a change in plans: Have a “pocket activity” ready in case a schedule change means you’ll have less time with the children. This is a simple game, such as a math or spelling game, or a book or news article that can be started or stopped at any time without losing its value.
Assistants, especially those who’ve taken the time to prepare, can have a big impact in a classroom, Eger says.“Assistants provide the extra hands and help to gather materials, lead small groups, prepare enriching activities and manage day-to-day tasks,” Eger says. “While they can’t solve all of the problems associated with drastic budget cuts, they can help ensure students feel as little of the sting as possible.”
Paddy Eger is a 20-year teacher from Washington State whose years as a trainer in the Parent Cooperative Education Program created the basis for her. She graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in elementary education.