How to Make Volunteering a Win-Win

From CharlottesvilleFamily Bloom magazine, Sept 2017 issue

The form arrives in the parent folder or in an email blast from school, and that familiar tug-of-war begins—it’s the annual volunteer request.  Opportunities abound, but constraints on your schedule—a full-time job, other children at home, elderly parents to care for—make finding the time for volunteering a serious challenge.  You’d like to help both the school and your child while not overextending yourself, but the array of choices on the Sign-up Genius can be bewildering.

Every school, big or small, public or private, can use a helping hand (or two) from volunteer parents.  Research shows a strong link between involved parents and their kids’ educational outcomes, especially in the early grades, and there are plenty of pros to volunteering.  Foremost are the direct benefits to your own child’s school environment, whether you assist in the classroom, office, PTO, or in a fundraising role.  Just as useful are the relationships you build with teachers and administrators, the up-close view of your student’s classmates and friends, the chance to become acquainted with other parents, and the early scoop on upcoming events or changes at the school.

Amid the constraints and benefits, how do you take control of school volunteering to make it work for you, your child, and your school?

The key to a satisfying volunteer experience is knowing your limitations.  After serving in a wide variety of volunteer capacities at my sons’ independent school from Kindergarten through grade 8, I’d suggest three key questions to ask yourself before committing to a volunteer job:  (1) How much time do I have to give?  (2) What is my goal relative to my child?  (3) How much of a challenge do I want to undertake?  The answers to these questions will help you focus your efforts and talents productively, so you can make a difference without driving yourself crazy.


Time flies

Carving time out of an already-packed schedule is often the biggest obstacle a parent faces when asked to take on a volunteer duty at school.  Before saying ‘yes,’ you should have a handle on the amount of time you can reasonably allocate to school-related tasks, not only in terms of number of hours per week or month, but where those hours fall in the day.  Is your free time distributed across weekdays, or is it all bunched on weekends and evenings?  Can you do things on the spur of the moment, or do you need plenty of advance notice? 

Most importantly, know whether your time allocation can be increased on the fly, in case your event experiences a hold-up or last-minute glitch.  If you have a babysitter on the hook or a work meeting to get to, the answer may simply be no.  How much time a job will take may be dictated by the size of your school (are you prepping a craft for six second-grade classes or just two?), but it’s important to fairly evaluate the time commitment (low to high) you will be making when you accept an assignment.  Some examples:

Low: Caring for the fish in the school aquarium, Preparing a dish for a cultural fair, Reading to the class once monthly, Assisting with Picture Day;

Medium: Tending the school garden, Helper in art or music class weekly, PTO class representative;

High: Room parent (in charge of coordinating other class parents for all activities), PTO president, Chair of a major school fundraiser;

Hint: There is a world of difference between serving as a PTO class rep, where you must attend the monthly meetings but you don’t have to come up with the agenda (or the energy), and serving as PTO president, where you need to do both.  Prioritize quality over quantity: If you can only swing a one-time event, like hosting a class party at your house, make the most of it—do it well, and call it good.  In the case of craft or food projects, remember—in a pinch you can always buy a component or menu item and send it in.  If you are filling a gap, you are helping!


A close call

The second question asks you to clarify your goal in volunteering in the first place.  Are you trying to be closer to your child, to learn more about her interests or how she interacts with friends?  Are you curious about how the teacher structures the day and manages the classroom, or perhaps how the administration runs the school?  Are you trying to bring about large-scale change to the whole system, or are you just volunteering because everyone else does?

If you have a particular goal in mind, understand that volunteer jobs vary by how close to (or far from) your student that job will take you.  Consider the relationship between you and your child—would he want you there in his classroom during an activity or would he prefer you help out elsewhere in the school?  Most young kids think it’s a fun novelty to see their parent for a brief interval, but as they get older, they may regard you as “spying” or horning in.  I once corrected my then-sixth-grader on a field trip in front of his friends, and never heard the end of it.

If you are volunteering for the express purpose of seeing more of your student in action, think about the proximity (near vs. far) of you to your child in various jobs:

Near: Library helper, Driver or chaperone on a class field trip, Show and tell parent who shares a skill or talent with the class, Field day coach;

Far: Office helper, Social media coordinator, Fundraising event coordinator, PTO rep or officer, School Board member;

Hint: A strange but fairly consistent rule of thumb kicks in here: In general, the more “involved” you are with your child’s school, the less you actually see your child.  Greater involvement usually means filling bigger roles where parent input or effort is sorely needed, not hanging out in your child’s homeroom taking care of the class pet.  Serving on my school’s accreditation committee meant attending lots of meetings over many months, and culminated in a great boon for the school, but I never saw my sons unless we passed in the hall.


Up for a challenge

The third question asks: what you are game for during your volunteer hours?  Do you like a thorny problem to solve or challenging mess to straighten out, or would you prefer a predictable, less exciting assignment? 

At one end of the spectrum are huge projects that have never been attempted before, like a brand-new, high-dollar school fundraiser.  To tackle something like that, you need time, creativity, energy, tenacity, and a whole committee of helpers.  At the other end might be a no-drama shift shelving books in the school library.  A job could be small in scope but tricky, such as trying to secure a zoning ordinance exception for the installation of a school sign.  Conversely, a large task might be relatively straightforward, like coordinating a Game Night that has been done the same way for the past ten years. 

It’s also a matter of your tolerance for chaos.  Helping the students line up for Picture Day is a much more orderly task than supervising the water events during Field Day.  A popular field trip at our school each year was a visit to the Virginia Safari Park—the kids had a blast feeding the animals through the car windows, but the five intrepid volunteer drivers always returned with their minivans flooded with animal chow.

Consider how much of a challenge (less vs. more) you need in your assignment to hold your interest:

Less: Coordinator of canned food drive, Art Room cleanup assistant, Recycling program delivery person, Scholastic book order coordinator;

More: Graduation slideshow creator, Costume designer for school play; Teacher Appreciation Day coordinator, Chair of a capital campaign;

Hint: If you can bring a unique skill or special talent to your volunteer job, all the better.  At our school, a landscape architect dad designed and built a set of rustic wood steps into a hillside next to the school playground.  An artist/photographer mom took a series of striking, close-up shots of students at work and play and framed them, and now they grace the school’s front hall.  Doing a volunteer job involving something you love can impart that joy to the kids, and makes the time you spend at school fly.

Be forewarned: If you gain a reputation as a dependable volunteer, you will naturally be asked to do (and to lead) more activities.  As you find yourself suddenly in charge of multiple events and projects, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, which often manifests itself as stress taken out on your family.  Be careful not to do so much that you feel resentful or overextended, and learn how to politely decline some requests.


Why not

Finally, be sure you are not volunteering at your child’s school for the wrong reasons.  For instance, don’t use a school event as a forum to gossip about or criticize teachers, staff, and other parents.  If you have a pent-up grievance about a school process or a particular person, schedule a meeting with the teacher or principal and talk it over in private.

Don’t accept a volunteer assignment in hopes that you’ll garner praise or special access from school staff or administrators.  The more you simply work hard and blend in, the more your help will be appreciated and your presence welcomed in the future.

And don’t volunteer grudgingly or out of a sense of guilt.  A parent helper who is distracted or has a bad attitude can be more trouble than he or she is worth to a busy teacher.


Bottom line: Whether you volunteer a lot or just a little, try to make things easier on yourself.  Feel good about the time and effort you’re able to give, and don’t measure your worth against what others are able to do.  If you honestly assess your time, goals, and preferences, your school volunteer experience will be a job well done.