Getting involved at your child’s primary or secondary school is an individual decision that can depend on many things. Are you still working full-time? Do you have younger children that require your full attention? Are you expecting your next child? Do you feel welcome at your child’s school and do they have a structure or organization that allows you opportunities to volunteer?
I don’t presume that every parent’s situation mirrors my own. However, I learned in my twenty-plus years of parenting that…Parents on campus keep many bad things from ever happening and encourages many good things to happen!
I began my volunteer career grudgingly in “Mother’s Day Out.” It was a co-op situation and everyone had a day of being “Helping Parent” to the teacher. Have I mentioned I rather despise supervising large groups of other people’s children? It is not one of my gifts and my tolerance level goes down the longer I am in charge of them.
My “favorite” experience was the field trip to the local zoo with a class of three-year-olds. I had one group in tow and the teacher had the other, and little did we suspect that the monkeys would be in heat at that time of year. You can guess what they were doing. We tried our very best to rush past them, but they were located prominently in a fork in the path and our loudest little boy was shouting, “What are they doing? Are they wrestling? Oh, my gosh, what is THAT??” Chaos ensued.
I silently vowed never to help with a field trip again if I could possibly avoid it, up to and including claiming I had bubonic plague. 🙂
The teacher kept her cool and used distraction (“Snacks ahead, boys and girls!“), winning my eternal admiration. Our preschool experience was great and elementary school was too, although I kept my PTA involvement to a minimum because there were already so many parents involved.
Then we got to middle school (or junior high for some of you) and I got the shock of my life.
Many of the parents disappeared, along with their financial support. I am not kidding.
They had various reasons; going back to work now that the kids were older; not feeling like their kids wanted them around; not really feeling the friendly vibe at the middle school they had at elementary school, etc. I looked around at the school that Daughter 1 was going to attend and was appalled. It was not a bad school academically and it had a wonderful Principal who wanted to do great things….it just had very little parental support. Some suffragette spirit inherited from a grandmother long ago took hold of me and I said to myself and others, “Heck with this! We are going to change things.”
I told my daughters that I didn’t care if they didn’t want me around their school – it needed me and I was going to be there, so here was the deal: They could acknowledge me in the hall if they wanted to, or not…I would not be offended. Since I gave them the control of that situation, I was warmly greeted by them and that turned out to be a very good thing because they ended up having the “Mom that everyone knows.” However, they knew better than to sign me up as a chaperone for field trips. Smart kids.
I gathered other “OQMs” I knew and got them excited about bringing our “can-do” attitude to our new school and welcoming Principal. We attended the first PTA meeting with a proposal to change a major shortcoming we observed at the middle school. We had 1200 students, but only 110 computers and that included the ones in the office! We proposed a fundraising campaign to build a computer lab that would seat an entire classroom, with networked printers and an overhead projector. The PTA would then donate the lab to the school so that it could be in the district inventory and would be maintained by their technical support. The seven or eight women who made up the PTA at the time were stunned, and probably doubtful that we could do it, but we started the ball rolling and a couple of months later a gentleman stopped me after a meeting and said he would like to talk about a donation.
He said his brother-in-law had been a middle school teacher and had eventually quit because he felt so poorly supported by the parents at his school. This couple vowed that if they ever had a chance to make a difference, they would, and so they offered our PTA a $25,000.00 matching grant for the computer lab. This was fantastic and gave us some extra to put toward installation and additional programs! (Don’t try to convince me there aren’t angels out there.) He said he would like to join our committee and would be willing to help us in our efforts to contact every family to ask them if they were aware of the shortage of computers at the school, and what they would like to pledge to help fix it. At the beginning of the following year, we installed a 36 computer lab with everything paid in full!
That was our first successful project and I had no idea at the time that it would be a linchpin in its eventual certification as an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme World School and a National PTA School of Excellence. The next projects we took on were a Fine Arts Festival to benefit the fine arts areas (which they hold yearly to this day), a Parent Funded grant program for teachers and their classrooms, and finally, a Campus Beautification project that transformed the school from a “prison look-alike” into a model for the District.
Ok, enough about my experience….what about you? What can you do? Where should you start?
If you are interested in getting involved at your child’s school (and I highly recommend it) connect with the PTA, PTO or other parent’s organization and see what volunteer opportunities are available. Start SMALL. See what you can handle and what you like. There is nothing worse than getting overwhelmed, particularly with a project you discover you despise. If you commit to something on a regular basis (volunteering in the classroom at the elementary level, the library at middle school or mentoring, for example), be there. They really do count on you so take it seriously. Get to know other parents in the organization and decide what area of assistance really speaks to you. Then figure out what you can do to support it.
Most importantly of all, please, please, please, don’t disappear at middle and high school. It is when your kids act as if they need you the least, but really need you the most. Your presence and awareness of what is happening at their school are crucial to speaking their language, knowing who and what they know, and really BEING THERE. This does not mean bullying teachers or Principals into doing things you want them to. There is a healthy boundary between being helpful and being intrusive, and you must always stay on the helpful side of the line.
Even if you work full-time, try to go to the PTA or PTSA meetings to keep informed and know the parents who are involved. They can be such resources for you if you let them. Info on everything from what dangerous party is going on to what Counselors really know their stuff about applying for college is available in that database. They can also help you navigate the acronym strewn landscape of education, which often seems like an alphabet soup designed to confuse the unwary. Many of these parents have older children who have been down the road you are now traveling and can share some of their wisdom with you. Not all of it will be applicable, but you will be surprised at how many of us experience the same things, and you may make a new friend or two along the way.
Last note: NONE of this advice applies to college. By that point, your involvement should be limited to helping them move in or out and showing up for Parent’s Day. Applaud and support from a distance, but let them fly!