Volunteering in US schools

With three children in various stages of schooling — middle, high and college to be a bit more specific — I have done my fair share of volunteering and chaperoning, baking and decorating, cutting and gluing. Volunteering, donating (time and preferably money as well), chaperoning and fundraising are integral to school life in the US. In many places, schools would not function properly without parent volunteers and their involvement. In my experience, volunteering is not just a crucial component of the operations of a school; it is also an important part of the social fabric of school life in the US, for kids and adults alike.

I was trying to remember the different school volunteer positions I have held and the list looks something like this: library assistant, reading tutor, lice checker, lunch server, lunch chaperone, art helper and class room helper. In addition, I have been on numerous field trips, helped at parties, baked for bake sales, sewn for plays and cooked for teacher appreciation. I have offered up parties at school auctions and guided bikes on bike safety day. The list goes on but I think you get the picture — there is a tremendous need for parent involvement and at times the requests for help can be a little overwhelming. I don’t think it was until I had my third child in school that I learned to pace myself a little. I finally got that the message that “volunteer” indeed meant that I had a choice.

There are many positive aspects to the volunteering component of school life in the US. It is certainly a way to meet people and in many instances make friends. Volunteering typically also makes you feel more connected and invested in your child’s school. If you volunteer in the classroom or school yard you can get a sense for how your child is in the school environment, how his or her friendships are, what he or she is like in the classroom. There is definite value in that. In the same vein, you will get to know teachers and administrators in a more personal way and not just via the tidbits your child is willing to offer you. It is easy to get sucked into the school volunteer world and sometimes it goes a little too far. I have seen parents starting out as once-a-week helpers but quickly ending up spending every day in the classroom running an art program. My kids have been in classes where the room parent has been a little overzealous. I remember one year in particular when the “teacher appreciation” week was outlined in detail with what the kids should do and bring to school each day: Monday – bring fresh flowers, Tuesday – bring a glass bead for stringing on a necklace, Wednesday – bring a handmade card, Thursday – bring a treat (preferably homemade), Friday – the teachers all go to the teacher appreciation luncheon, put on by the parents. I brought ten baguettes and made a salad for 50 that day…

In general I like the whole volunteer thing and when it gets to be too much, or there are too many slightly outrageous requests, I remind myself that I love knowing that I have insight and access to what goes on in school; that I get to see my child in this environment that I suspect would otherwise be quite unknown to me. I try to think about how most of the volunteer work is beneficial to the students as individuals as well as the school community as a whole. Last but not least, I remind myself that I can always say no!

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