What Volunteering Taught Me by
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Prompted By Volunteering

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At a school assembly with my mentor, Warren Cherry, in the background

After I retired from teaching high school English to have three children in six years, I was definitely off the job market. This was the 1970s and becoming a working mother was not a thing back then, at least for the women I knew. But sometime in 1977, with my older two children in kindergarten and second grade, I stuffed baby number three into a carrier and volunteered for a PTA job at their school. I would run the Bookery, a school book store that enabled children to buy books for as little as 25 cents used or $2 new, and to swap books for free.

I learned the most from my years of volunteering at a well-run school under the leadership of the man who became my mentor, Warren Cherry.

As a lover of children’s literature who once dreamed of opening a children’s bookstore (this was during an era before these cozy places were swallowed up by Barnes and Noble, and later by Amazon), Bookery was the perfect volunteer opportunity. I got to select the books, display them, and help children make selections. But it was the school principal, Warren Cherry, who taught me what really mattered: getting a book into the hands of a child, even if that child stole the book for lack of having a quarter to buy one. I wrote about this experience in my story about a memorable person, There are Far Worse Things to Steal Than a Book.

One day, a friend entered the school as I was stuffing flyers into teachers’ mailboxes about the new schedule for bringing their classes to Bookery. Baby Dana was strapped to my chest to free both of my hands for this task. The friend said, “Wow, if you are doing this now, you will be PTA President before you know it.” I demurred, but she was right. Once my baby was in kindergarten, I was hooked on the school culture and spent endless hours on the phone (remember those) as PTA President, coordinating volunteer efforts on behalf of the school. With my co-president, I ran monthly meetings and met weekly with Warren Cherry to see how we could help the school.

Conducting PTA business

At the same time, I had started teaching preschool at the nursery school my children had attended. In those days, the fact that I had a high school teaching certificate and was “nice” qualified me to do this job. After two years, however, I decided that my very limited knowledge about early childhood development and best teaching practices (beyond being a parent and lover of young children) was far from enough. So, I enrolled in a night program to earn a Master’s in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy.

The (somewhat old) graduate with her parents

What I soon came to understand, however, was that book learning only went so far. When I was halfway through my program, the director of the nursery school where I worked three mornings a week announced her retirement. She encouraged me to apply for her job “for the experience,” and I was hired. Granted, it was a small, half-day program, but once I had the job, I realized how little of what I was learning in my Master’s program was useful or practical. One the other hand, my years of volunteering and learning from Warren Cherry’s example were invaluable.

Volunteering taught me so much:

  • *Leadership’s role in establishing a school climate
  • *Working in partnership with teaching staff and parents in the best interests of the children
  • *Being a good listener who was open to the ideas of others
  • *Executive functioning skills of being able to organize my time and tasks and prioritize what needed to be done.
  • *Compassion and commitment, both essential to running a school organization
  • *Dedication to a caring community to better the lives of children and their families
  • *Respecting volunteers and encouraging their participation

I thought I needed to read books, write papers about early childhood education, study child development, and listen to lectures on the practical details of school administration. While this was all true, in retrospect, I learned the most from my years of volunteering at a well-run school under the leadership of the man who became my mentor, Warren Cherry.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

 

 

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Well-said, Laurie. You learned valuable lessons from your mentor and from volunteering. I’m sure they served you well as you opened your nursery school and in many other ways throughout your life. Listening and respecting other’s opinions are good life lessons, in general.

    Thank you for reminding all of us about those important lessons.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    What is particularly great about this story, Laurie, is how it shows how volunteerism was not just a side-line for you. To the contrary, it evolved into a career in and life-long passion for early education. And, even then, the important lessons of volunteerism stayed with you and, indeed, were foundational throughout your career. Indeed, your bullet points should be incorporated into every “Why Should I Volunteer?” or “Why Should We Use Volunteers?” brochure out there.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, John. I think from reading your story that you really understand the importance of volunteering for the betterment of one’s community. Of course, I am forever indebted to all of the volunteers who made my school possible. I hope future generations are able to volunteer, as that is what makes so many organizations and communities thrive.

  3. Marian says:

    Your learnings are terrific and true, and nothing beats that direct experience and mentoring you describe, Laurie. I really admire you and others who work with children (not my strong suit) because it’s so important!

  4. I’m sure those parents and kids knew they were lucky to have you running that school Laurie.

    I’ve told you how stories about your Cherry School reminded me of the wonderful, nurturing director of my son’s nursery school, and how she remembered us at a tribute uponher retirement ten years later

  5. Suzy says:

    Laurie, we knew about your Cherry Preschool, so it’s nice to find out about the volunteering you did earlier and what you learned from it. I always meant to get involved in PTA, but somehow didn’t. The Bookery sounds like a great gig, which I would have enjoyed too. But you didn’t stop there, you went on to be PTA President before moving on to actual employment in a preschool and then starting your own. As always, great pictures too!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Suzy. It was easier to be a volunteer in the late seventies and eighties when most women I knew were not employed outside of the house. They were bright, talented, well educated women and this type of volunteer work gave them a purpose and outlet for their abilities. Now, most younger/middle aged women I know are juggling careers and kids. Not much time left to give away, which is too bad for the not-for-profits that depended on them.

  6. Further to your response to Mare, it’s heartening to think of all the children you influenced directly and indirectly in such positive ways and to think of them, in a sense, paying it forward as well. We know the world’s a better place for it.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Barb. We used to see some evidence of paying it forward when the kids went on to elementary school. They were playground ambassadors, telling other children what they were taught at preschool (you can’t say you can’t play). Their parents continued to be school volunteers. I’d like to think some of that held up as they matured.

  7. It was interesting to read the sequential narrative as one step led to the next in your journey, and you took on leadership among parents and then among preschoolers. As one who taught early childhood education, both to undergrads and Master’s students, I believe that it wasn’t a very good program if what you learned in class was not enriching and directly applicable in helping you make sense of what you were seeing and doing with the young learners day to day.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are right, Dale. The instructor wasn’t great, at least not for me. The fact that he was the professor for the entire program and that I had his child in the preschool didn’t help. I can’t say I learned nothing and some of what we read was instructive, but he had limited practical experience and was not the type of person from whom I could learn very much.

  8. Joe Lowry says:

    Certainly, you pointed out that learning by doing is a great or probably the best way to learn. In my own career as a chemist, the labs taught me the most, and certainly showed if my book learning was on the correct track.

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