It can be tricky to navigate the social waters at school, to find a group of friends, and to find activities that are right for you. Mom, I’m talking about you here, not your child! Volunteering at school can be a win-win for you, for your child and for the school. But, before adding your name to too many sign-up sheets, give some real thought to your likes and limitations.
Most schools require volunteers to have fingerprint clearance. I learned from experience to do this before the school year begins, because it can take several weeks for the school to receive the results. Encourage grandparents who may want to volunteer to get fingerprinted, too.
Many schools require a certain number of volunteer hours per family per year – it’s 20 hours at our school. I found it easy to reach that goal when my girls were in the lower grades, because there were so many requests for volunteer help in the classroom. But beyond those years, there seem to be fewer opportunities.
It took me several years to find the right balance when it comes to volunteering at school. I made the rookie mistakes of agreeing to do more than my schedule allowed – and volunteering for activities that didn’t suit my personality or skill set – just because another mom asked me to help. I’m writing this hoping that others may benefit from my experiences.
Give realistic thought to your schedule before you commit. Are you able to volunteer for ongoing commitments like a weekly or monthly shift in the lunch room, the library, or at recess? Or, would you rather spend more concentrated hours volunteering to help with a larger one-time event? If your job or preschool children at home prevent you from committing to a set volunteer schedule, consider taking a role in a school fund-raiser, helping with a class party, or chaperoning a field trip. Depending on your level of commitment (chairperson or committee member), those events will require more concentrated time, but for a limited duration. And, don’t forget to consider your other obligations before you agree to help. If you host Thanksgiving dinner for your extended family, don’t sign up to help with the school’s Thanksgiving feast. This may seem obvious, but take it from someone who has made these mistakes, when the room mother sends out a desperate third and fourth plea for help, it’s easy to say yes and underestimate the demands on your time.
Look for volunteer opportunities that match your skills. I’m good at organizing, writing and photography, so I look for ways to contribute that require those skills. Do you enjoy sports? Volunteer for field day or to help with P.E. classes. Do you enjoy working one-on-one with children? Volunteer to help tutor or read with students. Are you crafty? Volunteer to help decorate for events or for classroom centers. I’ve found that I enjoy volunteering far more when the activity is in my comfort zone.
Give some thought to why you want to volunteer. Do you want to spend time with your child at school? If so, look for opportunities to participate in classroom activities or field trips where you interact with your child and his or her classmates. Do you want to spend time with other parents, perhaps making new friends? If so, look for committee opportunities, or volunteer for large events that typically require planning meetings.
Remember, when you commit to a volunteer activity, teachers, students and other parents are depending on you to show up and do your part. If your schedule is unpredictable due to work, small children or other commitments, there are still many other ways to contribute. My work schedule is difficult to predict in advance, but I’ve found lots of ways to help that do not require me to commit to being somewhere at a certain time. In fact, lots of my volunteering is done after my girls are in bed – like cutting box tops, working on the yearbook, helping the teachers with assembling packets for centers, and doing the program for the school play.
On one hand, volunteering can be a great way to meet other moms and make friends, particularly if you are new to the school or the community. On the other hand, overexposure to the inner workings of school is not always a good thing. As my twins enter sixth grade, I can say that over the last few years I’ve found the right level of involvement for me. I have lots of mom friends and acquaintances, but I try to avoid the cliques. I’m involved at school enough to feel like part of the community, but not so much that I’m privy to all the drama. All schools have drama. I’m a happier parent when I’m not in the middle of it. I’m also quite appreciative of those moms who are the PTO officers, who chair the big events and who are fixtures at school. Schools depend on volunteers, so find your niche and enjoy the time. The years really do fly by.
Originally posted in the Back to School issue of The Moms Magazine!