No Time to Volunteer?

August 7, 2008

I ran into the incoming parent teacher group president at my kids’ elementary school the other day and she related a conversation that sums up what is wrong with volunteering:

“My friend asked me if I am quitting my job to become PTG president.”

Clearly, her friend knows something about volunteering:  It’s labor intensive.  And the suggestion that one would have difficulty juggling paid work with such an important volunteer position is quite reasonable.

And that’s precisely the problem.  As the scope of what PTA/PTO/PTG organizations do has grown (I’ll use the term PTX to include them all), the volunteer pool has become more constrained, which translates into more work for fewer people.  And that leads to burnout.

It is easy to understand why the scope of effort has grown.  School budgets are constantly under pressure, and PTXs consistently step in to pick up the slack.  Some of the needs are financial, and many PTXs make grants to teachers, provide classroom supplies, and fund field trips, assemblies, and other special programs.  The average PTX in America raises about $15,000 each year.  The other consistent need is for volunteer help that was probably provided by school staff in the past.  Here I’m thinking of roles like library volunteers, noon aides, and playground supervisors.

Moms have always been the backbone of the PTX, and as more moms have gone into the workforce, the pool of available volunteers has shrunk, leaving a larger burden to be shouldered by a smaller number of people.  The net result is that the same people volunteer over and over, often getting burned out in the process.

This is a problem crying out for a solution.  While we probably can’t bridge municipal budget shortfalls, there are things we can do to relieve some of the inefficiency:

  • Communications.  I think email was supposed to be an improvement over the telephone and newsletters sent home in the backpack.  Uh uh.  “Reply all” ruined that.

Step 1:  Streamline communications

  • Scheduling.  Most active families have incredibly busy schedules.  They aren’t looking for more things to do, and the things they are already committed to are on different calendars in different places.  Scheduling is a real bear.

Step 2:  Simplify scheduling

  • Volunteer management.  Volunteers are parents, parents have a lot on their plates, and they don’t always remember what they committed to donate to the classroom, bring to the class party, or even that they committed to help out.

Step 3:  Improve volunteer management

My belief is that if we could do these three things, we would take a lot of the pain out of volunteering.  And if we could do that, we would be doing a huge service to current volunteers and making it easier to draw new volunteers into the system.  Especially those working moms who want to volunteer but don’t think they have the time!

Collaboration is a Two-Way Street

April 1, 2008

Conventional wisdom says that schools with high levels of parental involvement perform better. I believe this to be true, but I have also found (as the parent of three elementary school students) that teachers don’t necessarily relish the idea of heavy parental involvement. And I think I know why.

Today I read an article in Education Week that describes this tension. It suggests that a lot of parents only come forward when they have concerns or criticism, which creates a difficult dynamic, and it provides some examples of steps successful schools have taken to ensure a healthy level of parental involvement.

“In affluent areas, parents know they should be involved, but absent good guidance and a plan [from the school], they try to do too much,” said Joyce L. Epstein, who heads the Center on School, Fmaily, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It’s important for people to know they can take charge of this topic with research-based approaches … that work.”

Click here to read the full article.

My read is that a lot of the interactions between parents and teachers happen when the parents are already upset about something, which makes the conversations less productive than they might otherwise be. This rings true to me. I recently heard about the parent of one of my kid’s classmates who felt that the school should be providing more “gifted and talented” resources for her daughter. She raised the issue at a PTO meeting which immediately created a contentious dynamic with the school.

The successful schools cited in the article provide guidelines to ensure that parents and teachers are working together, collaboratively, rather than in a confrontational manner. It makes perfect sense.

I am interested in using the internet to improve communications between parent and teachers and I’d love to hear examples of ways that this is happening today. Have you heard of any?