20 February 2023
Why I volunteer - Emily Middleton and Ganesh Swaminathan from T. Rowe Price
"The fact that children are falling behind their peers so early in life was not clear to me before I started with Chapter One." - Ganesh Swaminathan
The T. Rowe Price and Chapter One partnership is now in its third year, with the company supporting a team of 30 online reading volunteers who read with children attending primary schools in Islington, London
Hear from two of the company's dedicated volunteers Emily Middleton and Ganesh Swaminathan about their motivation and experiences for getting involved with Chapter One.
Emily is a Senior Marketing Manager in ESG and Ganesh is Head of Technology Engineering Architecture & Strategy and co-chair of T. Rowe Price’s London corporate social responsibility team.
How does T. Rowe Price help you as employees in your efforts to support the community?
At T. Rowe Price there's a huge amount of encouragement to support charitable efforts, both internally and externally. We have a strong ‘giving back’ company culture. We are encouraged to participate in corporate responsibility related actions. For example, the half an hour every week that we can choose to spend reading with a child as part of the Chapter One online reading volunteers programme is covered by the firm; T. Rowe Price doesn’t expect us to use our own personal time. And if the volunteering time with one of our registered charity partners like Chapter One is outside of our work hours, the company donates $10 an hour to our corporate giving account.
What attracted you both to volunteer specifically for Chapter One?
I have two children myself, and my oldest, who is now 10, is what I would describe as a ‘reluctant reader’. My husband and I have the time to sit down and read with him every day so he’s really had that vital added support from us at home. For those children that don't have that additional support at home, I can see how it could have a real impact on their future and progression in all areas of school and life.
I'd love to spend more time doing charitable work, but the reality is I don't have time to commit to something regularly outside of work. I've got two children, I've got a dog, I've got work. But the in-work, online Chapter One volunteering model offers me something that I know I can really commit to - and make an impact.
I come from South India. We learned English initially as a second language. Proficiency in the language has helped me maintain a professional career, relocate to the UK and work for international companies. My career success is linked to my ability to take something and convert it. This came from skills that I picked up when I was very young in terms of building up the English language and reading and writing skills. When the Chapter One opportunity came up, I saw it as something very meaningful. If I didn't have good English skills, I probably wouldn't be here talking to you today. Success in the world today is connected to having good communication skills. If you can reach children at a really young age, help them to have fantastic reading skills, I see it as a levelling opportunity that every child should be given.
What have you gained from being involved in Chapter One professionally and personally?
Professionally, I would say it has definitely increased my network within T. Rowe Price. I joined the company in the midst of a Covid lockdown having not met anyone. One of the nicest things about Chapter One is that it’s enabled me to meet so many other people. As well as extending my networks it’s giving me a sense of shared experience and team building.
Day-to-day in my job, I'm deep into technical discussions on technical topics. I’m a technologist and corporate social responsibility is a totally different professional area to mine. Being involved with Chapter One has opened up a new area of learning and understanding to me around where the world is going and how corporations like T. Rowe Price can engage and play a part. Since starting my volunteer journey with Chapter One, I have become co-chair of T. Rowe Price’s London corporate social responsibility team which enables me to build on our commitment to young people’s educational opportunities.
From a more personal perspective, Chapter One gives me a sense of satisfaction that I'm doing more than just sitting in my home office, typing away on my computer, doing technology things. It gets me outside my comfort zone. Talking to a Year 1 child, doing phonics with them, has a different set of challenges and I'm enjoying that. But at the end of the day, the main value is in the sense of wellbeing and satisfaction Chapter One gives me. I feel happy saying, “I'm doing a little bit to help with things that are outside my day job that don't have a monetary return, or any compulsion that I do them.” There's so much joy when you can see that the child you are reading with has made significant progress over the course of the school year.
From the personal side, I would say that the reward that you get back from reading with a child is huge. This year, I’ve been paired with a child who is harder to engage with. I can sometimes struggle not to take it personally when he hasn’t engaged in a session because I really want him to do well and I feel quite protective of him when I see that he is struggling. But then, equally, we had a session the other week when he read so well to me that I felt quite emotional. You're really invested in the child and that personal connection is very rewarding. The children we read with don't realise the impact they have on us volunteers as well. It's not that I read with my student for that half an hour a week and then forget about him for the intervening days.
Yes, both my kids know the names of the children I've been reading with over the last three years! And it's the same, actually, when I do the weekly reading session at my desk in the office. It always sparks interest and conversation with the people that sit next to me. You're trying to get the child to say a word or playing games with them and then there's always someone who asks, “What was that you're doing?” or laughing at what they are overhearing in the nicest possible way. The Chapter One programme has an impact on more than just the child.
Could you please tell us a little more about the children that you have read with? Are there some particular moments that have stuck with you?
When I missed a week with the child I was reading with during the last academic year, the following week he wanted to know where I had been. He said he had been waiting for the Chapter One laptop to ring for his usual call and he had been so disappointed when it didn’t come. I literally had tears running down my cheeks when he said that. They're so interested in playing and learning, so for them to remember that on Fridays, at a certain time, we read together and that we missed that session - that was something that stuck with me. I'll remember that for a long time. It's that sense of attachment that you build up with your student. Even though it's only half an hour every week, it’s 30 minutes in the week that you are expected, that you're needed, and there's someone benefitting from you spending that time with them.
Were there any standout moments when a child has made a breakthrough with their reading and or confidence?
I would say just this week with the reluctant reader I'm reading with at the moment. There was something different about him. Yesterday something clicked; he was very focused. There was another child distracting him asking if he was coming to play and he was like “No, I'm studying!” So there are some ‘aha!’ moments when they get what is expected of them. You might start off thinking “Maybe I'm not teaching correctly, maybe I'm not being funny enough, maybe I'm not bringing myself down to what a Year 1 child needs”. But then it clicks.
It’s hard to give a standout moment about the child I'm currently reading with just because we have never managed to do a full half hour. He obviously suffers a bit with his attention span, so I think two shorter sessions a week will be the way forward with him. I think the opportunity Chapter One gives us to also meet up face-to-face can have a huge impact. I really noticed that sessions have gone better after we met the children in person. Meeting them is such a special experience.
You've both touched upon some good tips, for example, having two shorter sessions rather than one longer session or letting a child go earlier as a form of reward. Have you got any other tips especially for someone who's new to Chapter one and is about to have their first online reading session?
I think when starting out it’s good to explain to the child how reading with you is intended to make them feel more confident as a young reader, and what they can expect. Once you’ve broken the ice sometimes there might be the need to be a little bit strict in the sense that the child last week said to me that he would like to go, and I said, “No, this session is for 30 minutes and we are expected to continue. So let's continue and when it's 30 minutes, I will let you go”. And I didn't know if that would work or whether the child would just take off the headset and run off! Fortunately he didn't and at the end of the session I messaged the teacher to tell her about our exchange. I would recommend communicating with the teacher regularly, updating them about how sessions are going, asking if you need help, or just to report that you have moved the child up a level and asking them to congratulate them.
It's all about communicating and trying techniques and not taking it personally if you don’t see great progress. We are doing this remotely, they can't see our face, they can't see the emotion. So you have to use your voice to your advantage, see what works and if it doesn't work, ask for help. It's about trying a few things, not getting anxious about it, asking for help, following the tips, guidance and training that we have been given by the Chapter One team and finding a rhythm that works.
We also have a chat group with all our T. Rowe Price volunteer readers and we've tried to encourage people to give feedback and share if they're struggling or provide some ideas about what works for them. It can be a little bit intimidating starting something like this, because you're not quite sure what to expect, especially if you don’t have children yourself, and are not familiar with reading with a small child. So sharing knowledge and experiences has definitely helped.
How has volunteering changed or challenged your perceptions around the literacy problem that schools and families face? What was your awareness before you joined Chapter One?
I would say that it’s an assumption you make, especially if you're coming from another country, that since England is full of English-speaking people, they should all speak and read very good English. You think about London as being a lovely place full of history and full of investment - and then you hear about the challenges that you see right in the heart of the capital, the financial services capital of the world. That has been a bit of an eye opener for me. The fact that children are struggling to read in the UK, that they're falling behind their peers so early in life was not clear to me before I started with Chapter One. So the takeaway for me has been that we often assume things are a certain way when in reality they aren’t.
The Chapter One online reading volunteers programme has also shown us how small changes done regularly can have a lasting impact on a child because they are being targetted at the time they need the help most. And we are happy to see that people like myself and Emily and the 28 others from T. Rowe Price that we have on the programme right now are able to make a difference. I have a real curiosity for building and scaling the system, engaging the schools, engaging corporates to get this thing done. We're happy to learn more but also to be part of the solution.
Do you have any observations about Chapter One’s virtual model for employee volunteering. Have you or any of your colleagues had any doubts about it?
If this was an in-person programme, I wouldn't be able to commit to it. I think that the virtual element actually helps significantly with encouraging people to sign up and while there are some technological things that can be troublesome, these can usually be resolved quickly.
I agree. Also with it being virtual you've got flexibility. I try to keep my reading session at the same time each week, but obviously things do come up. Similarly, if the child's been off school sick, I'll try and rearrange our session to later in the week so they don’t miss out. It is a massive bonus that people can change those sessions rather than have to commit to the exact same time.
HOW CAN COMPANIES GET INVOLVED IN CHAPTER ONE?
Our virtual, time-efficient, flexible model for volunteering will enhance your company’s employee value proposition, whilst fulfilling CSR or social value commitments around education, social mobility and inclusion. Employees can:
- volunteer online directly from their desks with no travel
- make a direct impact on the lives of disadvantaged children
- support local communities across the UK
- improve their own well-being by helping others
- reconnect with your company’s social purpose
Research & Evidence
Ten reasons why Chapter One should feature in your CSR strategyThe need for our work is greater than ever as we expand Chapter One to more schools, in new regions, across the UK.
Why I volunteer - Christian Goldsmith, Morgan StanleyHear from Christian Goldsmith, Managing Director, about his experience of online volunteering
Why I volunteer - Samantha Scott, Sodexo“Being able to read is one of the key skills for a successful life.”