Smile Politely

The Chambana Volunteer, Dec. 15-22

With the school semester winding down, I wanted to spotlight a volunteer who has worked in a school and to hear their story firsthand. This volunteer spotlight is on Jaymes Grabowski, a Champaign Unit 4 volunteer who is stationed at Jefferson Middle School.

If you are a volunteer and would like to be interviewed for an upcoming article on Smile Politely, please send me a message. Thanks! MER

Spotlight on a Volunteer: Jaymes Grabowski, 23, Champaign, Illinois

How did you come to volunteer at Jefferson Middle School?

My mother has been working at Jefferson Middle School for the past several years and through casual conversation with her about the schools I became aware of how public schools strive to have more contact with the community. About two years ago my mother made me aware of an opportunity for me to use my foreign language skills to aide a student who came to Jefferson with little English language skills. I spent a week shadowing this student and helping the student by translating and just generally acclimatizing the student to the American public middle school. About two months ago I decided to return and started by volunteering my time supervising the cafeteria during sixth, seventh, and eighth grade lunch periods. I have been looking towards applying for possible Teacher Aid positions and found that by volunteering I could gain a rapport with students and teachers, learn classroom dynamics, and familiarize myself with the structure (expectations, discipline, bureaucracy etc) of a middle school. As my work schedule changed, I was able to commit more time to Jefferson and am currently there about four days a week for the whole school day.

Please describe your role as a volunteer at the school.

Currently I spend my time with two sixth grade math classes, eighth grade P.E., sixth and eighth grade lunch, and a seventh grade science class. My main function in the classroom is to encourage positive behavior from students: staying seated, staying on task, following classroom/teacher expectations. By having another adult presence, the teacher is able to focus less on worrying about classroom management and more on the lesson he/she is teaching. I also work one-on-one with students who are struggling to understand the concept of being taught. I also aide teachers by handing out/collecting papers, checking work (warm-ups, quizzes, homework), and helping describe directions to students. As another adult supervising students, I also help in resetting, (this particular euphemism is used at JMS, “resetting”), students who need assistance in keeping to themselves.

I know that when it comes to working directly with children the School District has a certain policy for volunteers. Please describe the application/background check process you went through.
Now that I have been through the process I have forgotten exactly how I ended up here! I believe I began with contacting the Mellon Administration Building about my interests in volunteering. They provided me with an application; the background check costs about $30 which included fingerprinting; Quite painless. Public school officials are so grateful and appreciative of community members willing to volunteer that they are more than happy to answer application procedure questions. All in all, it was a quick process. After I was cleared to volunteer I was put in contact with the volunteer coordinator at JMS. I’m not sure if every school has a staff member who organizes volunteers; when in doubt a friendly email to the building principle would do the trick.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working with the kids?

It’s fun working with kids because despite their best efforts, their motives are so transparent! It is actually a bit comical. But with sincerity, I enjoy working with kids, (especially middle-schoolers), because I can see the direct changes I partake in making in that child on a daily basis. Middle-schoolers are unique in that they are somewhat very childlike, yet they are just beginning to establish themselves as adults. Having the opportunity to mold and affect the change in their psyche is rewarding. I don’t know if “disadvantage” is what I’d call it, maybe inconvenience or intrusion, but kids want to know EVERYTHING about your life outside of what they see at school. Having a quick wit, the ability to diffuse unwarranted comments and to be trustworthy/likable yet authoritative is very beneficial. An anecdote: after being asked on a daily basis for about a week if I had a wife/fiancé/girlfriend or if I had EVER had a girlfriend, a sixth grader, actually quite respectfully, asked, “Mr. Jaymes, how’s your husband?” I had to take a pause, realized he was being sincere, (what a progressive question!), and responded, “Thank you for your thoughtful question, but I don’t have a husband yet!”

 Do you enjoy working with middle-schoolers, or would you rather work with a different age group and why?

I do enjoy middle-schoolers. I feel like this age, as I touched on earlier, is a dynamic point where children are getting a glimpse of what kind of adult they might become. Socially, kids are changing friends on almost a weekly basis as they try to see where they fit in. And academically, foundations are being built upon which their future education will rest. While it may seem incomprehensible how to teach a student about muscles and joints, or writing and solving expressions, it is possible. What middle-schoolers really benefit from by having a volunteer in their academic life is having another adult who isn’t their teacher, principal, or parent who can be a positive social/behavioral and academic role model.

How do middle-schoolers today compare to those 10-20 years ago? Have you noticed any significant changes?

A little over ten years ago I was in middle school. The consistency that I see is that middle school is a time of great change. Although technology has changed, (cell phone usage and SMARTtechnologies being used in the classroom), and there are more adult issues affecting this age group, (gang affiliation, pregnancy, drug use/distribution), I still feel that pre-teen adolescents are in need of what pre-teen adolescents were in need of ten years ago: compassionate and directing assistance to be successful behaviorally, socially and academically.

Do you have any advice for others who may be interested in volunteering in schools?

I would advise those with any hint of a desire to volunteer in a school to just do it! Think about it: you don’t have to do homework or dress for PE! Any amount of time you can offer will be valued by students and staff alike. My credo is that kids are people and deserve to be respected just as you would respect a professor, boss, or stranger. And don’t be distressed by what negatives you may experience, focus on the positive influence you have on the students.

For more information on how to volunteer at Champaign Schools, go to:
For Urbana Schools, go to:

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