Pretend to be a Preschool Teacher: What I Learned from a Year of Volunteering
Last summer I looked forward with great anticipation to sending my first kid off to school. After six whole years home with him (late August birthday), we were both ready. He did attend one year of preschool to help him get ready for all-day kindergarten. And my husband and I had decided that one year seemed sufficient, meaning my daughter would have another year before she went to preschool.
Then I stumbled across a post looking for volunteers at an organization several of my friends volunteer at. The group serves a low-income community in a nearby city, where much of the population consists of immigrants and refugees. They were looking for assistants for their preschool classes. I was not looking for more volunteering opportunities at the time, since we already had some established evening volunteer ministry in our church, and I was home with the little ones and getting childcare so I could volunteer during the day seemed inefficient.
But when I saw this post seeking preschool helpers, the thought popped into my head, “maybe I could take Jane.” She was, after all, preschool age. And I would love her to experience more diversity than we typically do in our suburb. Neil agreed it was worth at least finding out, so I asked and they not only said yes, they were quite enthusiastic about the idea of having an English-speaking peer. After some prayer and talking it over a little with friends, I signed up.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty excited for Jane to “go to preschool with the world,” and equally stoked to have the opportunity to serve refugees in some small way. It turned out to be more challenging than I expected, in part because of deciding to get pregnant, but I also learned a lot. I’d like to share what I learned with you because volunteering does more than help others, it can transform us as well.
I did not miss my calling as a preschool teacher. There are things I enjoy about preschoolers. They can be so darn cute, after all. But give me an angsty teenager any day. I found the first week of preschool extremely boring. Things got more interesting as we started working one-on-one with kids on specific skills during their free play time AND they got more comfortable and ornery. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate with 3-year-olds with limited English. And it’s adorable how excited they get about painting.
I am really, really selfish. There were times, especially as I went through unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, that I dreaded going to preschool. There were some rowdy kids in the class and communicating with parents about this was difficult as the parents’ English was typically more limited than the kids’. I often felt like my short two-hour stint there wore me out for the rest of the day. And I’m not used to getting worn out so easily.
I tried to pray on the way to school, reminding myself of the privilege it was for both Jane and me to spend time with these kids, and asking for the energy, patience, and compassion to do my job there. Overall the kids were very sweet and cute and it was fun to see some kids blossom throughout the year. One very quiet little boy started laughing and chattering just in the last couple weeks. I had no idea he knew that much English!
I am really, really blessed. While all the kids in our class were born in the U.S., many of their parents were born into poverty and political oppression. Some may have spent their entire lives in refugee camps or as displaced persons in other countries, until coming to the U.S. And of course, it’s incredibly difficult coming here with next to nothing and not knowing the language or how things work. I’m working at such an advantage.
But the thing that really struck me when I got crabby about wrangling twelve little wild things, was how privileged I was just to have the opportunity to volunteer. What a blessing to be able to stay home with my kids, and to have happened across a way to serve alongside my daughter. If I had to work during the day this opportunity would be out of the question. I also thought about how many daycare employees work long, hard, underpaid hours.
Loving people where they’re at. I was a little surprised by the teacher’s approach to discipline at first; it wasn’t as strict as I’d expected. Then again, many of these kids may have no concept for what we were asking them to do: clean up, stand in line, sit still, or stay in time out. After all, some of them don’t even have toys to clean up at home. And they’re three. As time went on, I realized the teacher was providing structure and boundaries while loving the kids where they were at. And that is something I could really stand to do much better with pretty much everyone in my life. After all, that’s what God has done with me. And I have many friends who love and accept me despite my plentiful faults.
With the preschool kids, it was fun to focus on their strengths even when they would get out of hand at times. The boy who couldn’t sit still at circle time was gifted both athletically and artistically. The aggressive, emotionally immature one was also one of the most articulate (and the youngest). I could go on. This same perspective and exercise would serve me well in all my relationships, as I can be hyper critical and focus on problems rather than progress.
I’m not sure I’ll ever sign up to teach preschool again, but I’m glad I did. I learned a lot and hopefully helped some little ones prepare for school one day while following Jesus’ call to serve the “least of these.”
What has volunteering taught you about yourself? Have you found a good match that uses your strengths while meeting needs?