Joining In the Fun: A Volunteer’s Perspective

WorkshopDr. Tom Mawhinney is on the Board of Directors for Livingston Street and volunteers in the classroom every other Tuesday morning. He offers his perspective on classroom life in this funny essay about his early experiences volunteering at Livingston Street.

I’m Four Years Old by Dr. Tom Mawhinney

Sesory Table at Livingston StreetMy experience with preschool students was relegated to the Bill Cosby skit about a plane ride with a young man named Jeffrey. In that scenario, Jeffrey’s mother was constantly calling his name as if that strategy would magically make Jeffrey act like a grown up. Jeffrey’s only comment was, “I’m four years old.” With that bit of experience under my belt, I entered the world of the preschooler.

It began when my daughter-in-law asked me to be on the board of directors of the Livingston Street Early Childhood Community in Kingston, NY. My granddaughter was enrolled and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved for a couple of years. I had no idea that it would become much more than that.

During one meeting, Cheryl, the head teacher and director of the program, asked if I would mind volunteering every other week, a foster-grandparent of sorts. After mulling it over, I thought, “How hard can this be? Babysitting for a couple of hours every other Tuesday.”

I had some experience in education. I had been a teacher of adolescents with emotional disorders and a high-school administrator. I am currently a graduate school of education professor at Touro College in Manhattan, teaching teachers of all levels. So I figured I had plenty of experience and educational savvy to handle anything a four-year old could dish out. Could it be any worse than the cafeteria food fight I had to break up in my last job?

Trains at Livingston StreetI arrived on my first day on time, but the children had already been there for a while. I am sure Cheryl had a little trepidation about me coming in, being a doctor of education – how intimidating is that? I am sure she figured she would indoctrinate me into the preschool world quickly. She pointed over to a small area where a wooden train set was arranged (much like the one pictured above). There were several cars with magnetic couplings and a set of tracks neatly connected. I settled in ready to watch a group of nice kids play.

It wasn’t long before I had the feeling I’d been set up. This was a special school – no one told me. I soon realized these children all had issues! Over there, two of them were trying to go in opposite directions, neither one giving ground. “I was here first,” one said. “Hey, they know number order!” I thought. After a little negotiating, I got them to understand the concept of taking turns. “Don’t they teach that here?” I wondered.

On another section of the track, two other children were arguing over a blue-colored engine with a smiley face. “I want it!” said a little girl. “I had it first,” retorted the current owner. Again, Judge Tommy intervened, while behind me another pair were rearranging the tracks just as a third child was chugging around the bend. That’s when I thought that putting seven four-year olds together during free play was not a good idea.

In reflecting on those first moments, I wondered if Cheryl was trying to tell me something, a bit of foreshadowing perhaps. I was the only adult male in the room and as my time there grew, I don’t think I was the grandfather figure I had envisioned, sitting in the rocking chair reading Go Dog Go to an eager little one! Oh, I did read stories, but with three boys on my lap and a fourth jockeying for a little space. Bruno (not his real name) thought I was his personal assistant dragging me from one activity to another. “They all have ADHD” I thought. “No,” said Faith, the teaching assistant, “that is how normal four-year olds act.” Was I too old to remember when my own kids were that age? We had to train them in all kinds of what I thought were innate behaviors – taking turns, not hurting one’s feelings, using your words, sharing. I wasn’t trained for this!

Snow at Livingston StretJust when I started to feel comfortable with the children supervising them inside, watching them closely outdoors, I learned that every day we go outside. I would arrive at school in January and inform Cheryl that it was eighteen degrees out. I decided that she suffered from selective deafness. We went out despite my protests. That’s when I learned that four-year olds have a condition known as “temperature insensitivity” as I watch them roll down the snow-covered hill next to our building, and I shivered under four layers of clothing. “This is not right,” I thought. “Some parent is going to wander by and threaten us with a law suit.”

I survived those early days and reluctantly decided that this was not particularly easy work. I had a lot to learn – the professor being the student. “Is it OK if I do this?” I would sheepishly ask. “Can Bruno do this?” “What’s the rule for that again?” “Should I be letting them sit on my lap?” So many questions! Is this what Piaget did? I might have to go back and revisit him. Meanwhile, I am just going to hunker down and try to immerse myself in the world of a four-year old.

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