Monday, August 3, 2009

On Volunteering. . .

I was recently asked this great question from a parent of a gifted child in a regular classroom:

What is the best use of our volunteer time? Their teacher for next year is not highly motivated but will probably welcome help.

Here is my response:
That is a really great question! These are a few of the ways that I would offer to help.

First, so that you are successful in being able to volunteer, I would make sure that the teacher knows that you are trying to help her- not to "challenge" her. I have found that regular education teachers are very defensive with regards to having gifted kids in their classrooms. I would try to convey to her that you are not saying that she is not meeting the needs of the students or is not an effective teacher, but that you would like to help her be able to do that in the way that is best for the kids. You catch more flies with honey, they say, and I find it very true with regular education teachers.

Some of the ways that I utilize parents and tasks that you could volunteer for would be:
*Offering to lead small groups
This could be in helping to facilitate small groups for reading or math so that the students could be in differentiated instructional groups. I provide parents with training and resources, while they help with the groups. Many teachers fail to truly differentiate learning and provide alternate instruction for students because they don't have the time or the resources. Parents are an invaluable asset to managing these flexible groupings.
*Volunteering to help with remediation
In a regular education classroom (and often in a gifted classroom as well), much of the teacher's time is taken up by remediation. You could volunteer to work with a struggling student or two, go overing material the teacher has already covered and providing that extra practice the students need. This will free to teacher up to do enrichment or differentiated groupings with the rest of the class- instead of the rest of the class doing "busy work" while the teacher is working with struggling students.
*Coordinate a "Volunteer Station"
In my classroom, I have a volunteer station. It consists of a clipboard with a running list of tasks (copying, filing, laminating, collating, etc.). I put the list of tasks by the door. I also have stacking shelves labeled "copying", "collating", "distributing" and several other things. Next to them is a box for finished projects. They are right by the door, so parents can stay five minutes at drop off, before pick-up, or when they have a free half hour. This gives parents who want to help, but not work with students or who have limited time, a chance to be involved as well. I find that I do next to none of these tasks because the parents do a task, cross it off and put it in the finished basket before I can get to it. That leaves me free to do planning and work with students.

*Providing instructional resources
Parents are a wonderful source of information on new products or ideas to implement in the classroom. I have many that I would like to implement, but the school will not provide the needed supplies, and I am unable to purchase them. Two years ago, the parents chipped in to provide some of these supplies. They have helped purchase interactive simulations, supplies for model roller coasters and other items to make some truly wonderful learning experiences possible.

*Provide informational resources to your teacher
Perhaps for Christmas, the teacher's birthday, or Teacher Appreciation, you could provide a helpful aid. There are many wonderful books, instructional manuals, and magazine subscriptions that provide countless excellent strategies and guides for truly effective gifted instruction. Think about giving one of these instead of your traditional gift if you were planning on celebrating your teacher at these times.

*Encourage parents to keep in mind the bigger picture and let small things go
I have to say that, sadly, the majority of my planning and preparation time is often taken up by parents. It is so, so wonderful that parents want to be involved in the class and in their children's lives. But sometimes this is taken to an extreme, and small incidences of classroom behavior and interactions become huge ordeals filled with emails, phone calls, meetings with principals, meetings with groups of parents and more. As much as you are able, free your child's teacher to teach by not taking up her valuable time with minor issues. My husband and I have a saying: "Is this a hill we want to die on, or is this a hill we want to just climb over?" As you get ready to send an email or call your teacher to question her, keep that in mind. If you're not willing to die over it, just close the message box or hang up the phone. . . In doing so, remind yourself that this is freeing up your child's teacher to do what she was born and trained to do: teach your precious son or daughter.

*Be Supportive
We teachers work hard to make your child's learning fun as well as educational. When you see us doing something well, or your child has enjoyed it, let us know! Nothing is more helpful and encouraging than letting us know we are really making a difference. If a teacher implements a strategy or follows up on a request, let her know you appreciate it with a call or a note to let her know you noticed. We hear far more criticism than praise, and the praise is so very meaningful to a teacher. This is by far the best way you can help your child's teacher.

I hope that helps! If you would like more specifics about any of the suggestions, or had something else in mind, please let me know! Be sure to come back and tell how it goes!

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