As we choose opportunities that really motivate us, or passionately believe in, volunteering should be very fulfilling. But it is it that simple?
The most enjoyable aspect of my 4 years as a School Governor was reading with the pupils with Tara, the Reading Dog. I really enjoyed getting to know the children and seeing them grow in confidence. I have written about the importance of volunteering and of the animal friends in our lives elsewhere on my blog. Although it was such a good experience, I did find that there wasn’t really a lot you can really do, just reading for 10 minutes with each child. I often felt that my time wasn’t as valued as much as a paid member of staff.
Tara was poorly and had retired at the end of 2017 My term as a Governor ended shortly after and I was soon ready for a new challenge. It is important for volunteers to constantly seek new challenges and not get taken for granted. The ARCh Oxfordshire (Assisted Reading for Children) volunteer programme I had seen winning awards on Twitter looked ideal, as you work twice a week with three children over an entire school year. The emphasis is on passing on your love of reading through mentoring, building a relationship and getting to know each other. As the school makes a financial contribution, your efforts are much more valued and appreciated. As an ARCh reader, you are issued with a box full of books and games to really engage the children. You can swap these for others at regular book-swapping events.
Reassuringly, the process of becoming an ARCh volunteer was very stringent, I had an interview to join the scheme. I took our new puppy, Treacle, to the interview, explaining that one day I was hoping she would become their first reading dog. My interviewers agreed and welcomed me to the scheme! Next, there was comprehensive training to attend and several certificates to earn before my supervisor, who I recognised as previously being a volunteer driver with OurBus Bartons, found a school for me to work in.
My placement was Primary school in a nearby town, the busy dynamic was a bit different from the village primary that I was used to. The school had worked with ARCh before, so they already understood our function. I joined another new volunteer for our induction. With a smile, the Headteacher told my female colleague “We have some lovely early readers for you.” She turned to me and said, “We have some year five boys that have attendance problems and will really benefit from spending time with you.” My heart sank a little.
Our first session was at the start of term in September went very well and although all three boys were visibly nervous, they were able to tell me bit about themselves. All three said that reading was their favourite hobby – I think they were just saying what they thought I wanted to hear! We began by using a general mixture of books and games and we began to get to know one another. I am generous with praise and try to structure our sessions, letting the children determine the kind of which activity we do. Often, one of the boys was absent and I would read with other members of the class. They were lovely, I really enjoyed meeting them and hearing a bit of their stories. I guiltily wondered how much nicer it would be for me if I had been working with these children. On Thursdays, I spend the morning assisting in the classroom before my afternoon session. I get to help the children with their spelling and mathematics. This has helped me settle into the class.
With one of my assigned children often absent and my only making slow progress with the other two, my confidence began to falter. In an education system that fails so many children, I wasn’t sure if I had the skills or the time to give the help mine needed. I wasn’t sure if I was wasting my time and theirs. It wasn’t until I attended ‘recall’ training with the other members of my class who had also started volunteering in schools that I realised that most of us were working with children with challenging behaviour. I also learned that many ARCh volunteers often do not begin to see the benefits of their work until after Christmas.
I have had some success. As we were looking through an atlas, one of my boys started telling me about the Titanic. Although his knowledge seemed mostly related to the film, I could see that this subject really captured his imagination, so I bought in a couple of books from home. Over the next couple of weeks, we explored nautical terms, Morse code, shipbuilding and the disaster itself. I even came back after half term with a Titanic quiz, which he did very well at. (He had been listening after all!)
I always introduce myself as ‘Richard’ and it is lovely to have been greeted in that way in the corridors. I think word has spread. Some children from other classes have seen me with my children and are interested in reading with me themselves. As I mention in my blog post about Parenthood, children are such a gift. From just listening to them read, you get to join them in their amazing worlds. Sadly, it is also clear that many haven’t fully developed their reading skills and don’t have any opportunity to interact with grown-ups.
I stuck with it. My two readers have now both finished their first books with me, I have read with the others in the class and have had my supervision, which went really well. I haven’t missed a session and am enjoying them more each time. A clue to this is that I start referring to them as MY children halfway through this post! Of course, there is more to do. Their class teacher will be leaving at Christmas, so I am very much aware that my presence will be one of the consistent parts of their school lives over the next few months.
Not for the first time, I have realised that volunteering is actually really hard work and making a success of it depends on how much effort you put in.