I have three kids – one is in middle school, another in elementary and my little guy is in pre-K.
I love volunteering at their schools — and after 10+ years, I have had virtually every kind of role: room mom, lizard feeder, T-shirt seller, you name it.
But the sheer number of volunteer “opportunities” (needs) that land in my inbox from my kids’ schools can be totally overwhelming. Especially when juxtaposed against the fact that my day job is quite demanding.
I think every parent – whether they have a job outside the home or not – wrestles with the question of how much time they are going to dedicate to their kids’ schools. On the one hand, volunteering at school can be so rewarding. We all love the look of pride our littles get on their faces when we walk in the door to be the “secret reader” for the day. And it can be such a great way to “flex” some of those skills that don’t necessarily get used every day — gardening, art projects, decorating for events. Some parents like to take on some of the more complex jobs at school — running the annual auction, participating on the board — as a way to use professional skills that they aren’t using every day, either because the nature of their work has changed or because they decided to be a parent full-time.
But as we all know — volunteering can also be a colossal time vacuum if you aren’t careful. In many ways, there is no more slippery slope than volunteering at school. One mom I know (and love, and respect) volunteered to work the concessions at a few of our school sports events. Before she knew it, she was basically the CEO of a small concessions empire, with operations at all of our school’s events across the city and nearly every day. I **think** she’s cool with it, but it’s a cautionary tale.
And lastly, there is guilt. I just feel guilty when another mom spends 100’s of hours with my son’s class doing a gorgeous, totally unique and awe-inspiring art project, and I can barely get it together to send in mini-muffins for his birthday celebration.
With a decade of experience at this under my belt, I humbly offer up my own coping strategies for school volunteering:
This is so obvious it’s almost dumb. You just need to know what you like to do, and what you’re good at. I, for example, am the opposite of crafty. So when the emails come in asking for parent volunteers for the annual class auction projects, I swiftly hit delete. That’s just not my gift. I try to pick the things I like to do and/or the things for which I have passion.
Know Your Limits
This is just so important. Before you show up at Back To School Night, or accept that HUGE fundraising job, you need to really give some thought to how much availability you really have in your calendar. This applies to your work, of course, in terms of how much time away from the office will you need, how much flexibility you have, etc. But this also applies to your personal life. Did I hear you say your daughter is going to travel to 12 cities this fall with her gymnastics team? You are remodeling your entire house and living in a trailer in the driveway for six months? You just got a brand new job? It’s probably not the year that you should take that big school job too — it’s just going to grind on you, and your family.
But on the flip side, if this year is NOT one of those years, it’s important to know that too. Those are really great opportunities to step forward and participate — especially because every year won’t be like that.
Also, keep in mind that with the ebb and flow of your life, there are opportunities that fit. In my busier years, I have taken on smaller, discrete opportunities. A two hour cooking project or babysitting the class pet over the winter break, for example, might be discrete and manageable.
Do Not Be Afraid to Say “No”
A few years ago, I was approached to take on a big role at school. I was so tempted to say “Yes!” It was flattering to be asked, and I was really, truly excited about the project. BUT. It was NOT my year — I had recently returned to work after a few years of staying home with my littles, I was launching a startup with Erin (CluckCluck was born!), and I had a flurry of other personal commitments that were not flexible/negotiable. So I wrote a very nice, respectful email and declined. And then I held my breath, waited for the blow-back, nasty-gram that I assumed would show up, avoiding eye contact with everyone that had been involved in the decision. And guess what? It was totally fine. Everyone understood.
Be Vigilant Against the Slippery Slope
School volunteering can be a very slippery slope my friends. This is not insidious or mean-spirited, it’s just a fact. If you show up at school and help out, there is a good chance you will be asked to help out more. That’s when you simply need to re-read this blog from the top down and make another decision. Also, if your school job is expanding like the job my friend, the snack queen, took on, and if you don’t want it to do so, be brave about either setting boundaries or asking for more help. Nobody will hear your silent suffering.
Again, school volunteering is such a special, great part of being a parent. But being mindful about what you do will help you make sure you can both live up to all of your commitments (at school and away) and actually enjoy yourself along the way.
Have fun kids!