Room Mom volunteers play vital roles in classrooms

| Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Back-to-school doesn't just mean more work for kids. This time of year, parents around the region are getting assignments for various volunteer positions available at their children's schools.

Whether they're called Room Moms and Dads, PTA members or simply Special Helpers, these parents provide a vital role in ensuring the school year goes smoothly, teachers and administrators say. They help with everything from field trips to fundraising, party planning to problem solving. They aid with special projects, oversee events and generally provide extra sets of hands and eyes any time they're needed.

“They are extremely valuable,” says Michelle Kendrew, kindergarten teacher at Wexford Elementary in the Pine-Richland School District. “I'm so thankful to the parents who are able to come in and help.”

Shana Mackie was a room mom in Kendrew's class last year when her oldest child, Noah, was a student there. Mackie, a mother of three children and former teacher, knows how demanding overseeing a group of young children can be.

“Noah has always been aware that I used to be a teacher, but he has never seen me in the role,” she says.

“I have always just been ‘mom' to him. By being a volunteer in the classroom, I was showing him that I was still interested in the learning process, still interested in helping him learn new things and still excited to participate in a school setting.

“His face lit up every time I came in. What mom doesn't want that reaction from their child when walking into the class to help out?”

Mackie's duties included helping to coordinate classroom parties and serving as a liaison between PTO members, school officials and parents. She was in the classroom once or twice a month, helping with writing, spelling and math lessons, in addition to helping students shop a class store where they “spend” tickets they earn for good behavior.

Room parents often work with their own children, though not always. Being in the school helps them get to know the people their children see every day.

“I often worked with Noah, but also got to interact and meet many of his peers, finally being able to put faces to names,” Mackie says. “Volunteering in the classroom helped me observe and understand all the different ways the kids were learning in class.”

Being there also helped her get a firsthand look at what her child was being taught, which allowed her to help him at home by using specific vocabulary words when chatting with Noah.

“I was familiar with what goals he was working on and could help him reach those goals more easily knowing the background information he had been given in the classroom,” she says.

Noah, now 7, says he likes when his mom comes to school and has big plans for later in the school year.

“Mom wants to see me because she misses me during the day,” he says. “I would be sad if my mom didn't come into school.

“I hope one day Mom can come into school for Valentine's Day so I can make her a Valentine.”

For Heather Brown, PTA president at Memorial Elementary School in Bethel Park, volunteering helps her show her three children the importance of helping out.

“I think they enjoy having their parents there,” says Brown of the students. “My kids are so used to seeing me at the school, it's like, ‘Oh there's Mom again.' For the parents who aren't able to be involved, when they do come, the kids really enjoy that.”

Brown says while teachers are always happy to have them, it's important for volunteers to avoid overstepping educators' bounds when in the classroom.

“It's still their classroom — they're still in charge,” Brown says.

Eric Chalus, Memorial Elementary principal, says parents working as a team with teachers helps everyone provide “the best education experience as possible.

“Our PTA provides us with many things to benefit our school, things that are not in our budget, such as paying for and setting up all field trips, providing teachers with classroom funds, planning parties, purchasing many technology items such as iPads and smart boards, as well as helping out as necessary in or out of the classrooms,” he says. “Our parents are always there when we need them.”

Claudine Walasik, PTA president at Homeville Elementary School in the West Mifflin Area district, has been volunteering as a room mom since her oldest, now a high-school junior, started school. Patience and compassion are key to the role she says.

“And you definitely have to have a good rapport with the teachers and principal,” she says.

The work also requires an appreciation of the cute and kooky things kids do, volunteers say. Walasik remembers the day she helped with a field trip for the kids that involved a ride in a limo. One second-grader was so excited, he insisted on wearing a three-piece suit. During a stop at Eat'n Park, he drew a good deal of attention from fellow diners.

“Everyone was doting on him,” Walasik says with a laugh.

When working with groups of children, it's important to find a way to engage each individual child, Walasik says.

“The most important thing is focusing on what benefits the entire group of children, not just your own,” she says.

The kids often get a kick out of seeing their parents in school, volunteers say, though the enthusiasm level can vary by grade.

“The younger they are, the more likely they are to want you there,” Bridgett Bates, vice president of parent involvement at Edgeworth Elementary in the Quaker Valley School District, says, laughing. “The older they are, the more independent they are.”

Bates says parents helping out has a ripple effect on the entire school.

“Every single time one person walks through the door to help, every kid in the school benefits,” says the mother of two. “If you have the time or the talent you can share, why not?”

Brenda Mullay and Diane Ebner, who both have students in Kendrew's kindergarten class, recently were on hand to help the kids paint apple prints onto special T-shirts for an upcoming school festival. They offered guiding hands and advice for the little ones as they painted a halved apple either red, green or yellow before pushing it to the cloth to transfer the likeness.

“I remember my mom doing this, so I wanted to continue to do it, too,” says Mullay, mother of three including her kindergartner, Ryan. “It's rewarding. I adore being part of their education.”

Kendrew's students offered enthusiastic nods when their teacher asked them if they liked having the moms there for the day, but Ryan had perhaps the most endearing sentiment when asked why.

“Because she's my mom,” he says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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