My First Year as a School Volunteer: Lessons from the Front Lines
About a year ago I wrote this post about how to make the most out of your school volunteer efforts. D2 wasn’t enrolled in pre-school yet, so at the time I hadn’t yet dipped my toe into the volunteer waters. My biggest concern was how I would balance my already full plate with the obligatory service that all schools seem to expect these days.
One of the first things I read on the contract to enroll D2 in Montessori’s toddler program was that every family was required to contribute 20 volunteer hours or $200 per school year. I told Dr. D. about the Faustian bargain agreement.
Well, of course we are just going to pay the $200 bucks, right? Dr. D. thinks this is a non-issue.
We don’t have time to volunteer, he argues. Let’s pay the money and be done with it.
I shudder. What will the other parents think of us? What will D2′s teachers think? I’m positive we’ll be the only parents who choose to write a check.
I envision teachers clucking their tongues and classmates’ mothers giving me looks of disapproval. That’s D2′s mother. How sad she can’t peel herself away from her job to volunteer a few measly hours a year.
No way was I going down like that.
I resolve to be the Best School Volunteer. Ever.
In hindsight, I should have set my sights a little lower.
And therein lies lesson one: If you are a busy parent with limited time, it’s easy to be overly ambitious and take on more than you can handle because you want to impress teachers and other parents. But you do yourself no favors by stressing out over what should be a enjoyable activity.
Make it easy on yourself by starting small. Most schools are happy to have any level of quality parental involvement because they are focused on parent engagement.
I learned a number of other important lessons along the way this year.
Only volunteer to do stuff you actually want to do.
I know this one is rather obvious. At the beginning of the year parents were given a volunteer sign up sheet with two pages of activities to choose from. I checked the class laundry box (easy) and gardening (WTH was I thinking?). I do not garden at my own home. I am not sure why I thought I would garden at my son’s school. Needless to say, when the email notices came around reminding parents about the gardening “opportunities” I always found a way to be busy.
Besides, I really don’t like dirt that much.
I also don’t do crafts or crafty stuff but that’s another post.
On the other hand, I kicked ass as a member of the School Gala Aquisitions Committee. Turns out business relationships are good for snagging some serious swag for silent auction fundraisers. The lesson here? Core competencies exist for a reason. Leverage your strengths and use those.
Don’t try to compete with other parents.
You know that chirpy mom who knows all the teachers, is BFF’s with the school principal and is a part of every major school activity? That’s not me and it doesn’t have to be you. Comparing yourself to what other parents do (or you think they do) or don’t do is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, focus on doing something that is fun for you, helps you get to know your child’s teachers, classmates and allows you to contribute to the school in a meaningful way.
Find activities that allow you to connect with your child’s teacher.
You and your child’s teacher will be one of her biggest influences in the early years. I checked the volunteer sheet box to be a classroom parent but apparently there is a super secret tenure system I didn’t act quickly enough to land this job. Still, I found lots of ways to have contact with D2′s lovely teachers. Toddler class out of diapers or wipes? I was on it.
Laundry duty? Heck, I do plenty at home what’s another load? Done. These were low pressure activities that allowed me to chat with D2′s teachers and do a much needed service for his class.
Let other people be in charge.
My hunch is that working parents especially feel the brunt of this one. Wanting to prove you are an involved parent is not enough of a reason to take on leadership of a commitee or project you know damn well you don’t have time for. And let’s face it, those of us who are used to being in charge at work find it easy to be in charge everywhere else. Stop!
Here’s my advice: Resist the urge to take charge of every committee or activity you are in. Sure that capital campaign committee you are on would probably run more efficiently if you led it but is it really necessary?
It’s perfectly okay to be a follower. I repeat: It’s okay to be a follower.
Think of it as leading from behind or taking a break from being the one who has to make The Big Decisions. Enjoy being a worker bee and be happy knowing you are still making a difference in your child’s school.
Now if your child’s classmate needs a new kidney or something and you are an ace fundraiser, by all means get to work.
I have huge admiration for the many parents who contribute dozens (if not hundreds) of hours to their childrens’ schools. Volunteering is serious work. Fact is, most schools couldn’t operate withouth the dedication of parents and the select handful of moms and dads who go above and beyond.
What I learned about balancing work, motherhood and all the stuff that comes with it is to know my limitations and feel okay setting boundaries. Most of all I learned that when it comes to volunteering it’s quality not that quantity counts.
Your turn. Do you volunteer at your child’s school? What have you learned from the experience?