An open post to Principals: How to ENCOURAGE Parents TO HELP in READING GROUPS
Updated: Aug 13
I’ll admit it, I’m biased – when my kids were younger I loved helping out in their classroom, especially reading groups. It’s not only because I adore books and stories. It's because I loved sharing class time with my child, I enjoyed week after week getting to know their classmates and - yes - secretly getting to spy on the teacher. The great teachers gave me confidence and connection, and the unhappy teachers gave me insight in how to better help my child get through the year. And in the years where there was more than one mum helping, I could look forward to an adult chat before or after class (something I really enjoyed, since those days were spent mainly by myself with a toddler)!
The benefits to children are huge – my children loved me participating in the classroom, and they were proud to quickly show me a new item before we settled down to work. Being there helped me to identify problems in my child’s learning. My daughter says it made her feel happy to see me and that she tried harder when I was there. My child and I could talk at home about the book we were reading in class, aiding comprehension and interest. The kids in my group benefited from my attention, and of course with other adults helping out, teachers have more time to spend quality teaching one-on-one with students.
So parents and carers, if you have the chance to get yourselves inside the classroom, help out! Principals and Head Teachers, if you're not attracting (and keeping) volunteers in your classroom, here’s what this mum thinks you need to do:
Genuine manners are important. I really liked it when the teacher smiled at me with a bright "Hello Melanie!" when I entered the classroom, telling me that I was very welcome and wanted. It's a much better feeling than a grumpy and harrassed, "Oh, right, you're here".
Be organised before the volunteer arrives. A disorganised teacher imparts a poor image to the parent, and shows a disrespect for the parent's time. There's less time to do the reading (so it's either rush or don't finish) and children are usually unsettled by the disruption of the teacher having to spend time finding materials. This happened with one teacher for a whole year - and every week the class ran amok while he dug around for the texts. I felt terrible.
Many of your volunteers will be mothers with younger kids, so please allow younger siblings into the classroom. Provide some materials for them to play with (puzzles, age-appropriate books, drawing materials/small whiteboard) so the sibling (and mother) feels eager to come. Toddlers often like to sit on the floor next to the group, or wedged at the table between their parent and older sibling. They feel connected and secure, and they also get to see what’s going on in the big world of learning! The elder brother or sister loves having their young sibling in class too, it makes them feel very special among their peers for a few minutes.
Please allow parents to chat for a few minutes outside the classroom before they come in (you might be surprised that some schools require absolute silence). Chatting makes people happy and provides social cohesion! Many stay-at-home mothers relish the chance to talk to other adults and make new friends - it's a pleasant reward for volunteering.
Make sure that the parent is allowed to interact/teach their child for at least one-third of every single time they’re in the classroom IF you want to keep parents motivated to return regularly all year. I enjoyed classroom volunteering a lot more with at least some interaction every week, than when my child’s group was only rostered to me on alternate weeks, or when I wasn't rostered to them at all. The kids feel it too. My daughter would tell me it was a ‘good week’ or a ‘bad week’ depending on whether I could be with her. A few years before that I was helping in my son's class but rostered to help two remedial learners in a corner of the room while the rest of the class (including my son) were taught something completely different by the teacher – it was lonely without my son and a hard year to complete. I'll tell you straight that I'm much happier being with my child’s group for the whole session and I won't do a reading group again unless my child is in it each time. If you don't understand the parent, you'll lose them, and I'm guessing most parents feel the same way: I help with reading groups to be involved with my child's education, I'm giving up my valuable time and while I'm very happy and want to help others, my child has to be a part of the benefit too. Having my child by my side meant their classmates usually behaved better too.
Allow non-classroom school-affiliated parents to help. Many parents with older children tend to go back to work, but some don’t – or can’t. But they still enjoy the interaction of young children and are experienced at it. They feel a connection to the school, they want to keep busy and contribute to their community, and their offer to help even though they don’t have a child in the classroom is a brilliant opportunity for the teacher. Grab it!
Invite grandparents to volunteer – and group grandparents to volunteer together at specific times (eg “Grandparent Tuesdays”) so they’re with their peers. Like everyone else they’ll probably enjoy it more (and come back) if they see their peers sticking at it, and for the social opportunities with people of their own life-stage. Grandparents Day in the UK (October) and USA (September) can be a good time to recruit grandparent volunteers. Grandparents Day in Australia is too late (October) - an earlier call should be made when school commences in February.
Don’t just ask for volunteers at the beginning of the year, repeat the call at the beginning of each term (if you need help). Circumstances change during the year, a parent may quit a job, or have a baby, and have more flexible hours – but if you don't regularly let parents know you need them, they won’t offer.
Ask parents for feedback from the activity. The best teacher I worked with would quickly ask at the end of each session how each child went, if there were any difficulties, and what I thought. She appreciated my observations and I very much appreciated that she wanted to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to encourage their outcomes.
Finally, if you want to keep your reading group volunteers, don’t overload them with every job you need doing. Save these for someone else so they don’t get volunteer fatigue.
In all, they were wonderful years which I'd love to repeat. To mums, dads, grandparents, teachers, principals and students - I wish you all happy classroom reading groups!
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