When Kristina Loper’s oldest daughter started kindergarten, the Tacoma mom of two wasted no time signing up for the school’s parent-teacher organization. “When the parents are involved at school, it helps create a stronger community, and it benefits the kids,” she says.
She’s right — according to the nonprofit research center Child Trends, parent involvement in school is linked to better grades and fewer behavior problems in students, particularly for those in elementary school. Parent involvement also boosts teachers’ job satisfaction. And parent involvement at schools is on the rise: Parent participation in school events increased nearly 10 percent between 1999 and 2012.
But there’s a downside: Parent volunteering can quickly snowball from a few hours here and there to an avalanche of emails, committee meetings and late nights sewing 24 bluebird costumes for the spring carnival. Some volunteers, like Loper — who served two years as president of the parent-teacher organization and logged hundreds of hours at the school — get buried, and burned out.
Happily, it’s possible to find balance as a volunteer, whether you have hundreds of hours to give or just a few minutes. Here’s how.
School volunteer duties have a way of ballooning, Loper says, so it’s essential to set boundaries, especially for officers, room parents and others in time-intensive volunteer roles. She learned the hard way: “I saw all these needs at the school and I tried to fill them all. I definitely got burned out.”
At the peak of her school volunteering, Loper recalls, she would whisk her kids past the school’s playground after school instead of stopping to let them play, because the minute she set foot on the playground she was flooded with parent questions about meetings, events and other school business — the same types of questions she fielded night and day via email, text and phone.
Burnout buster: Set limits on your time and energy — because nobody else will do it for you. Loper got a handle on her burgeoning volunteer load by designating two days per week as “off” days for school volunteering: no school-volunteer-related emails, activities or phone calls on those days.
Rivka Caroline, a time-management expert, mom of seven and author of From Frazzled to Focused: The Ultimate Guide for Moms (and Dads) Who Want to Reclaim Their Time, Their Sanity and Their Lives, recommends sticking to a set number of monthly “pro bono” hours per month: “Once those hours are used up, you know that volunteering has to wait until next month.”
Eyes on the prize
If you feel as though the parent-volunteer pressure has been mounting in recent years, you’re not alone. “I think the requests are increasing because we want to give so much more for our children than we had,” says Lela Davidson, mom of two and author of Blacklisted from the PTA, a tongue-in-cheek collection of essays about, among other things, her love-hate relationship with school volunteering.
“At a recent PTO meeting at my kids’ high school, an organizer asked for help with a theme, food, music and games for the after-prom party,” she says. “When we were kids, that was called the prom."
“In our constant quest to make every event in our kids’ lives unforgettable, we’re creating a whole lot of work for ourselves.”
Burnout buster: Prioritize volunteer activities that have the biggest impact on your child’s success in school, and put the rest in the “not now” pile. For example, that might mean spending more time assisting with the track team or supervising the lunchroom, and cutting back on other volunteer pursuits.
Maybe fundraising isn’t your thing, supervising the second-grade field trip to the zoo leaves you drained, or you can’t leave work to help your child’s class make risotto. Don’t waste time and energy feeling bad about it, Caroline says. “Either volunteer or don’t, but there’s never room for guilt.”
Burnout buster: If there’s one key to volunteer satisfaction, it might be this: Find the one volunteer activity you really enjoy — or at least, don’t hate — and do that. Extroverted parents may love staffing school dances and helping out in the classroom, but that won’t work for everyone.
Play to your strengths and schedule: Tech-savvy parents can update the school website or facilitate a class Facebook page; those who can’t get away until after the kids are in bed can help clean up after a school event, instead of working the entire thing.
Parents who can’t attend daytime events can stay connected to teachers and coaches via email, says Caroline. Stick to a regular check-in schedule — every two weeks or every month — and ask what your child can focus on that month to help support her success.
Dip a toe in
After she was “swept into” the role of PTA treasurer and then copresident, Lisa Steele Haberly, a Tucson, Arizona, mom of two, noticed something: The kindergarten classes at her children’s elementary school had plenty of parent help, but not the upper grades. “I realized that the parents of the older kids were burned out,” she says. “They’d put in their time.”
That kind of thinking is common, but upper elementary and secondary grades need parent help, too, says Loper. Parent volunteering takes a different shape as kids get older — think chaperoning school dances instead of supervising finger-painting — but parental help is still needed and appreciated. And as Child Trends notes, parent volunteering benefits kids in middle school and high school, too.
Burnout buster: Think of parent volunteering as a marathon, not a sprint, Loper says; don’t burn through your energy right out of the gate. Instead of signing up for everything at that first PTA meeting, try out a single volunteer commitment. Pace yourself, and you’ll be better prepared to serve your kid’s school community for the long haul.