Jennifer Doering serves as a teaching assistant at St. James Elementary School in San Francisco California and shares community with the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.
I’m just going to come out and say it: being a volunteer is rough. Its long hours, it’s (basically) no pay, it’s hard work for little reward, and it’s the job that no one really wants to do. My job title is “Assistant Teacher,” but it really should be “Executive Copier, Behavior and Meltdown Manager, Lunch Duty Expert, and Extended Care Specialist.” Boy is that a mouthful. I’m the one who makes emergency copies. I’m the one who talks to the screaming kindergartener who just doesn’t understand why he can’t swing his pencil around like a sword. I’m the one who sets up hot lunch. I’m the one who stays after school for 2+ hours every day with only 2 other adults, watching the 30 students whose parents work late. I fill the gaps.
All volunteers fill the gaps. But those gaps aren’t just jobs. When I make emergency copies, I’m taking stress off of an already overworked teacher. When I talk to the kindergartner, I’m teaching important safety and emotional management lessons to someone who needs it. When I set up hot lunch, I’m making sure that my students get something to eat that day, even if they don’t like cheese on their sandwiches, as they constantly remind me. When I work at extended care, I’m giving homework help to students that desperately need it, and spending quality time with kids that don’t necessarily get that at home. I’m doing important work. Do I get annoyed and complain? Yes, almost every day. Do I love my job? Sometimes. Sometimes it’s really hard to love. But sometimes it’s magical. Like the day we blew bubbles outside for an hour and giggled. The times when I have deep conversations about how the solar system works or what a million looks like with a third grader while he’s reading for homework (This same third grader is also obsessed with fart noises. You know kids). The day I decided to play Twister, but fell over with a smile on my face a minute into the game. The day my students derailed our calendar/math lesson (in a good way) because they just *had* to know how many more days there were until Halloween. The times when my students show how much they care about each other because they ask about absent students, even the ones they don’t get along with.
Being a volunteer is rough. But I didn’t say it wasn’t worth it.