If you made a list of the people who served your communities with the greatest effect, who would appear at the top? For many reasons my list would start with teachers.
I’ve worked for District 218 for nearly a quarter century. Like most who work in public education, when I read or hear people critique schools I think “you’ve obviously not met our teachers nor stepped into our buildings.”
People choose to work in education to serve. They don’t get rich – they work hard, stressful jobs that involve long hours at nights, weekends, and summers (coaching, summer school, curriculum development, and many other examples.)
Some other time, I will write about the unseen time, effort, talent, and money that teachers invest in kids. Today, however, I would like to share a beautiful example of teachers and public service.
Not only do they not receive compensation for volunteering for this program, but they spend their own money for the privilege of serving. They do it because they believe it serves our common good.
Over the last 20 months, I’ve coordinated a literacy outreach titled Cradle to the
Classroom. Our volunteers, mostly teachers, speak with new and expecting parents about the significance of reading with their babies.
Yes, most parents read with their children. But few know the research that reading daily starting at such a young age enhances brain development, language skills, and school readiness.
Since January 2011, our volunteers have addressed more than 2,700 parents at prenatal and infant nutrition classes at Advocate Christ Medical Center, Little Company of Mary Hospital, MetroSouth Medical Center, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) sites in Oak Lawn and Blue Island.
We speak for 10 minutes about the research and close by giving parents a new baby book. Our organization has received nearly $15,000 in grants, primarily from the Blue Island Community Health Care Foundation and Illinois Reading Council, to buy these books.
Our teacher volunteers receive no money for their time. They volunteer for this literacy outreach because they believe in its purpose and possibility.
"Many parents I speak with know the importance of reading, but to hear facts and statistics that really validate what they may already do, or want to do, is encouraging to them,” said Kelly McKimson, an English teacher at Richards High
School. “Parents that are not reading with their babies hear our short presentations and leave with a confidence to do something simple and healthy for their children.”
For Katie Mucha, who teaches English at Eisenhower High School, reaching out to young parents revives lessons she learned from her own mother.
“My mom read to me every day as a kid. My best memories are of the two of us on the couch with a good book,” Mucha said. “I attribute my love of language and reading to her, and I can only naturally pass that on to my children.”
Mucha works with too many students who enter high school below grade level in reading ability.
“It saddens me when my students come into my classroom having never read with someone. I always take a survey at the beginning of the year asking my students how many books they have in their home. All too often, the answer to that is ‘zero.’ How will they know how important it is to read if no one ever shows them?” she wonders.
Roberta Hardy works as a reading specialist in grades 1 to 3 at Lincoln School in Blue Island. As much as any professional, she sees the need to educate parents about their roles as ‘first teachers.’
“As a reading teacher for students in grades 1-3, I witness on a daily basis the impact early reading experiences in a student's home can have upon a child's ability to understand the reading process and become a reader,” Hardy said. “The student whose home environment reflects a love of reading provides a foundation upon which the child can build the skills necessary for literacy. The interest of a parent in books and the written word fosters the same development in the child, helping to create a lifelong reader.”
Part of the outreach message seeks to educate parents about their roles as a child’s first teacher.
“Some parents do not envision themselves as their children's first teachers. It is often a revelation to these parents that they can provide powerful educational experiences in their own homes by making reading to their children each day a priority,” Hardy said. “I have seen this cause a rippling effect as parents become true advocates for their children's educational needs both at home and at school.”
“As a high school English teacher, the hope is that parents have been aware of their child's experience with language and reading as they have grown up,” McKimson said. “When they get to me, parents can confidently enter the conversation about their child's language ability and other educational goals.”
Some parents, unfortunately, believe that technology can take their place when it comes to literacy.
“In our increasingly technological society, I've had many parents tell me they think they are doing the right thing by relying on television and video programs to expose their children to language,” McKimson said.
She stressed that many of her students do not have books in their homes that are not from school.
“Every year I have students that tell me they've never read a book in its entirety. This emphasis on technology has left books behind for many of our kids. Parents need to see the research that suggests books being more effective for language development and for positive educational habits throughout a child's life,” McKimson said.