Many parents want to contribute to their child's school. Some parents want to roll their sleeves up and take on a job to complete. Others like to attend school events and observe from a distance. Some parents may only have one option – sending in needed supplies because they work full-time.
Teachers communicate the various ways that parents can help so they can feel a part of the school community. This can be done through newsletters, emails, meetings and personal contacts. Personally, I grab parents the first time they walk in my classroom, before school even begins, at our school supply drop-off day. My board is filled with an array of sign-up sheets with pencils underneath for easy access. Parents can volunteer to provide snacks, make playdough, send in clear plastic bags for materials, work the binding machine, plan the Valentine's party, contribute cardstock, and on and on. There's plenty for everyone.
But, is there ever a time when it's best not to have "parent help"? When do you say "no" to parents who want to be in the classroom often? Is there ever a time when it should be just the teacher and the children? Over the years I've figured out the boundaries for parent involvement in my classroom that seem to work best for the students and me.
Visits and Volunteers
One very successful way for parents to be a part of the day-to-day fun is to sign up to read to the class on a rotating basis. Some teachers have a special time set aside after lunch for "Celebrity Guest Readers". I always ask parents if they want to bring a book from home or read one from our classroom library.
Classroom parties are another great opportunity for parents to come and join in the fun. I post the date and times in my newsletter many weeks in advance, to give parents time to make arrangements to attend. For parents with young children at home, I suggest they trade off babysitting with each other. One parent attends the Winter Holiday party while the other watches both sets of children; then they switch roles for the Valentine's Day party. This system works great for field trips too.
At our parties, I "make the rounds" and talk with each parent who attends. I see my role as the "hostess" who wants to make sure everyone feels welcome. I always bring the children to the front of the room and have them get in three rows; the stand-up row, the knee row and the sit-down row. It provides a great Kodak moment. Usually we have a song or poem to perform which adds to the fun of the festivities.
Having parents share a passion with the students is a wonderful thing. We've had yoga lessons, tortilla making, a Destination Imagination demonstration, violin playing, and rock identification lessons to name a few. It's a way to maximize learning for the students while involving parents simultaneously.
Many classrooms have students whose parents are from other cultures. Often these children find themselves living between two worlds. By inviting parents to come and share information about their homeland, it makes the student feel proud to see their parent's culture honored and respected. My experience has shown me that these parents often need a personal invitation to come and participate. But when they arrive, they bring examples of clothing, toys, books, food, games and more. It's a special learning experience for us all.
Another important way for parents to contribute is to help prepare supplies. I tell parents that this is probably the most helpful thing they can do for me. Their contribution of tracing, cutting and pasting saves me time; time that I can spend on planning for the children. For this job, I try to build in flexibility. They can come to school or work at home. They can help every week or just once a month. This isn't a glamorous job, but it's definitely a necessary one.
Why Academic Volunteers Don't Work for Me
Of course, many parents assume that "helping" means volunteering in the classroom. I find respectful ways to turn down these offers of assistance. My reasons for this are clear and I can articulate them to a parent if asked:
1. Rotating parent "help" can be very distracting and confusing to the children. Often parents "do" the work for a child rather than encouraging them to be independent.
2. The child whose parent is the helper almost always has a wasted day. He or she spends most of their time watching their parent and feeling jealous.
3. There is a confidentiality issue when parents observe children other than their own during work time.
4. Special needs students can be unpredictable. As a class, we don't need an audience watching us handle unexpected behaviors. But more important, I don't want judgments from other parents about that child.
5. Parents do talk amongst themselves about teachers; it's a fact.
I certainly don't have anything to hide. It's just not in the best interest of our learning environment to have parents participating in our daily literacy and math times. Simply put, my focus is most important and valuable when placed on the children.
Because I take such a hard line on this, I make sure there are many other fun times for parents to visit and share the school experience with their children. My favorite times are our planned parties we host to celebrate our parents and the contributions they make to our classroom. In the fall, we have a "Dads and Doughnuts" celebration. It's a wonderful event for dads to attend, first thing in the morning, on their way to work. We share a snack, sing a few songs and read the book Just Like Daddy. Then, each child takes their dad on a "tour" of the classroom. It's fun to see dads building Legos or putting on a puppet show with their child.
In the spring, we have our "Moms and Munchies" extravaganza. We work for weeks to prepare all the flowers, cards and cookbooks while learning new songs and rehearsing the poem we perform. We always notice that the moms love to chit-chat with each other more than the dads do. Moms also always seem to cry when we sing our songs.
These events are memory makers for both the child and parent that will last a lifetime! I'm thrilled to play a part in this process and watch all the fun unfold.