My Day As a WatchDOG Dad

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One of the most interesting things about having a child entering the public school system for the first time is you get to see how different education is from how it was (or at least how you remember it from when you were a child). For instance, when my wife and I attended orientation for Gleason Elementary in Cy Fair, they told us about the WatchDOG program, something that I'd never had anything like when I was a kid.

Essentially, it's an international program designed to get fathers, grandfathers, uncles and other male figures more involved in children's lives by having them volunteer at elementary schools their children attend. It's been a huge success, and more than 4,000 schools participate. Considering that roughly three quarters of all American teachers, and the vast majority of elementary school teachers, are women, according to the Department of Education, it's a great chance to bring male figures into school.

"Plus, it's been shown that having more men on campus reduces the chance of intruders," a school rep happily chirped when describing the program, as if we didn't need any more reason to be terrified in this day and age.

Still, I signed right up, and let me tell you something; one day, just one, as an all day helper in a school can change your perception of education forever. In my case, for the best.

My initial job was to help with the dropping off of kids at the curb by drivers. Generally the Kid With One F and I walk to school, so we observe this phenomenon only peripherally. Between the drop-offs and the pick-ups at the end of the day, though, it's amazing to see how incredibly regimented and organized modern-day schools are in making sure that every single child's arrival and departure is accounted for. There are more than 1,000 children at the school, and their movements are meticulously coordinated by the minute to herd them from one area to another in order to avoid chaos in the halls. I'd call it military precision, but I'd like to see the military herd five-year-olds before I decide who does the better organizational job.

In general, the WatchDOG program places you a lot with your own child, which makes it a special treat for him or her. I spent about an hour and a half in my daughter's kindergarten class. Each time I was assigned to take four or five students, including her, to either the cafeteria or the library to play word-recognition games or complete a math and coloring puzzle.

You can see the worth of the program from the first moment that you gather children around you. Every WatchDOG dad is a rock star in the school, with children you don't know randomly running up to high-five you. Rabid feminist that I am, I recognize that the lopsided gender employment in schools is another patriarchal construct dealing with women's roles in childrearing, but it did sort of make me sad to see how quickly kids seem to immediately imprint on a male educational figure, even a temporary and ancillary one.

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Even in classrooms away from your kids, there's an ease and genuine fondness from the kids. I worked with sight words in a first grade class, and then with letter names in a largely ESL pre-K class. The kids see it as a treat. Classroom size at Gleason seems to run to more than 20 kids per teacher, and though they handle it with grace and ease, the chance for one-on-one or small group instruction brings out a lot of personal flair from each child.

A lot of teachers will find you basic tasks to help with. For instance, I stapled up paper stocking art projects in the hallway, then moved over to putting online access code stickers and due dates inside Scholastic flyers. It feels a little like busywork, but it's a look at the sheer amount of effort that has to go into being a teacher these days. Gleason maintains a take-home folder for each child that is meticulously updated at least every week and often daily. In the modern world, this involves not just report cards but constant reminders about fundraisers, homework, events, Internet resources, etc. How any teacher manages to keep it all in check, I'll never know.

There's also other ways they get you to help out. Kids at Gleason earn school currency to buy toys at the school store, and I and the other WatchDOGs for the day helped stock it in the morning. I also got to play book doctor in the library, attending to books that had been taken out of circulation for being sticky, torn or otherwise damaged. It's a strangely fulfilling way to spend an hour, undoing accidents so another kid can enjoy a book in better condition.

Recess is a test of your might. By designation, WatchDOG dads are play monitors, but even more than in the classroom, I found myself surrounded by small children crying out for tag, hide and seek, red light/green light and other games. It's times like that you discover that you are likely not as strong as a mob of five-year-olds. It was like being in the most adorable lynch mob of all time. Thankfully, the more experienced staff came to my rescue and pulled me free of the horde.

There is an unforeseen consequence, though. To say that my daughter didn't react well to my attention being divided from just her to an entire group at play is an understatement. It moved her to tears. The only thing that seemed to overcome it was, again, taking charge and instituting a rigorously run outing of duck duck goose with her as the star. That got us through recess, at least.

Got her through recess, I mean. On my scheduled patrols along the perimeter of the school, I had the sad task of escorting two different kids at two separate times to the clinic after playground injuries. One had suffered a rather spectacular nosebleed; the other held his side from the pain of a collision with another boy. Both seemed very grateful to have someone to keep them company on the way to be tended to.

At the end of the day, I was more exhausted than I've ever been from an assignment. Even lugging a heavy bag of reporter crap all over Comicpalooza for four days didn't compare. WatchDOG really gave me a hands-on chance to see how complex the mechanism of public education is right now, how it's grown and adapted and done its absolute best to make a safe, fun, nurturing environment to learn in. It makes you immediately want to go back, which is a sort of bitter irony because at Gleason, the program is so popular that each dad gets to go only once a year. It's a great go, though, and I can't recommend it enough.

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