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Volunteering means making a difference for kids

January 07, 2007|by KATE COLEMAN

When I was a child, I thought I'd grow up to be a teacher.

I chose a different path - paths, actually - and have been happy with the roads I've traveled.

My two younger sisters are teachers. Patti teaches kindergarten in the school I attended a half-block away from my mom's house in New Jersey.

Maureen - dubbed "Eena" by her twin Patti's inability to pronounce the official name - teaches art to more than 300 prekindergarten through eighth-grade students in a community about 30 minutes south of our childhood home.

They've both been doing it so long they've taught children of former pupils.

They love what they do and are good at it.

Patti efficiently and gently guides her little ones in the early steps of their education, enriching the journey with her natural musical ability on guitar and piano.

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Eena, who has "Heimliched" two little kids - most likely saving their lives - leads her classes in amazingly creative projects, always managing to slip in a bit of art theory and history.

Each has been honored as her school's Teacher of the Year.

I respect my sisters in their chosen profession.

I think it's the hardest job in the world.

Teachers have to be "on" all the time. There never is a moment when they can relax and let down their guard.

I'm not just talking about kids fooling around - passing notes or throwing spitballs.

What happens in the classroom is important. I can think of nothing that matters more.

Learning to read, learning to write, learning to communicate are essential skills for living.

Teachers are largely responsible for implanting and nurturing those competencies. The task is huge.

Because I no longer work full time, I decided that I finally could do some volunteering.

I love little kids, so the local elementary school was an obvious venue for me.

The principal, who is a good friend, signed me up. The volunteer coordinator contacted me and asked if I wanted to mentor or tutor.

"Which do you need more?" I asked accommodatingly.

"Tutors," she replied.

"I guess I could do that," I offered.

"Math or reading?" she asked.

My response was instantaneous: "Reading. No math!"

So for the past couple of months, I've been spending a couple of hours one morning a week working with two first-graders and two second-graders in one-on-one half-hour sessions.

But it doesn't feel like work.

I love being around the children. I love their innocence and honesty. I love seeing tiny fingernails with the palest pink polish, cute ponytail holders, cool little high-top sneakers, camouflage pants and smiles that are missing front teeth.

Each week the students read the previous week's book and a new book. Their folders contain their journals, in which they record the books' titles and new words.

I'm there to help and I suppose to encourage. I know I am there to be thrilled each time one of them "gets it," each time he or she recognizes a word figured out the week before - letter-by-letter, sound-by-sound or with a clue from an illustration.

They are learning to read. It's magic.

I look forward to being with these kids, and I've had a few clues that they don't mind their time with me.

One asked me if I'd be coming for the rest of the school year and has given me a hug before returning to her classroom our last couple of sessions. As I said goodbye to another, I received a very gallant kiss on my extended hand.

The professionals at the school have assured me that I'm making a difference for my kids.

I know they are making a difference for me.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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