With school beginning in just a few weeks in many parts of the country, I asked Ruly Ruth, school volunteer extraordinaire, to provide some advice to parents wanting to make a difference by volunteering at their child’s school. Unfortunately, some parents have negative experiences as school volunteers and are easily discouraged from participating in the school system. Ruth shares with us how to set the right expectations and make school volunteering a smooth and easy process.
I have over 8 years of experience volunteering in 4 schools–granted, all at the elementary school level, and have even been named Volunteer of the Year 2 years ago. I truly believe that every parent should volunteer in their child’s school—regardless of what year they are and whether it’s public, private, or even boarding school. This way you know what’s going on scholastically, you get to know teachers and administration on a personal level, the kids in the school, and in my experience you’re personal feedback and requests are honored more often as well.
The following are geared mainly to elementary school. Jr. high/Middle and high school is a whole other ball of wax. They don’t like/need parents in the classroom, but there’s loads you can help out with still–be it the school store, office or lunchroom administration, and PTA or the school’s student/teacher/parent organization, you just have to let the administration know of your desire to be involved.
Here are my tips to volunteering successfully–again, mainly for elementary school:
1) Write in the first week of school a personal note to your child’s teacher(s) expressing your desire to volunteer.
2) To be a good volunteer–and one that is sought after—you need to follow the directions the teacher gives you. They have in mind exactly what they’re looking for. If after working with the teacher for a while and you have a suggestion, you may give it then. Do NOT go in with your own ideas looking to run the classroom–this is a fast way to be short-termed or minimally used. I’ve seen both! Yes, volunteering is like a job! And the teacher is the Boss! (This experience should also be put on your resume, by the way, and that teacher can be used as a reference as well.)
3) Know in advance most teachers will not use volunteers until about October or after Columbus Day. This is so that the students know the teacher is in charge, and that this is THEIR classroom. Once order is established, only then do teachers usually bring in volunteers. Do NOT be offended if you have nothing to do in September. The older the grades, the less you will be used or less often. With younger grades, especially kindergarten, you may be called in almost immediately.
4) You may or may not be working directly with students. If you have a preference, let the teacher know. I’ve been a reading and math tutor as well as a copier/collator/stapler, a project office volunteer where I’ve done die-cuts, and PTA volunteer coordinator–volunteering to get volunteers for specific projects. There’s lots to do in a school! And whether or not you’re a people person doesn’t matter. Follow your passion. If you love science or math or music, let the school know–they’re usually very happy to let you help in your desired interest!
5) Treat the office staff and administration with respect. Do not steamroll or ignore them–they are part of the team. Volunteering, although our time and efforts and talents are given for free, is like a job! And the office staff are the coordinators/contact personnel almost always–not to mention the information vault. And almost always they are more than willing to help!!!
6) Have fun! If you dread going to volunteer, STOP!! This is, after all, volunteering. And although not every day will be a piece of cake, if most of the time you’re not looking forward to it, don’t do it!
I LOVE being around my children’s schools and the kids and employees. It’s a very fun and vibrant environment. And I hope you do too!
A few more perspectives on this topic:
- “Volunteer? No Way!” Anne Tergesen, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, May 8, 2006 (the comments are the most interesting part of this article, mentioning the many reasons women don’t want to volunteer in schools, also a suggestion to use a free service called SignUp Genius to make organizing and communicating with school volunteers easier.)
- “Dads Not Allowed? Is Your Classroom Father-Friendly? It should be!” Calvin Hennick, Scholastic, August 2008 (insight into why more men don’t volunteer in schools, including this interesting comment, “Schools are matriarchal . . . We discovered that school teachers actually preferred to have mothers there rather than the fathers. Who knows why?” Also profiles the group Watch D.O.G.S (Dads of Great Students), a male-alternative to the PTA, asking Dads to volunteer one full day a year in schools)
Do you volunteer in your child’s school? What tips do you have for school volunteers? Please share in the comments.