How to Be Productively Involved in Your Kid’s School
You don’t want to be that parent who’s a pain in the neck
Many parents have great hopes for their children — and for their kids’ elementary school years. This is where children develop friendships, a sense of self and a lifelong love of learning.
I guess that’s why parents get involved at school? I couldn’t say, as everyone’s experience is different. What I know is that when my son started kindergarten at our neighborhood public school, I was one of those parents who, without much reflection, quickly signed up to volunteer, and within a year had run for the local school council.
Six years later, still on the council, I can’t calculate the amount of time and energy I’ve put into “school stuff.” I’ve spent hundreds of hours with other parents organizing events, attending meetings, even lobbying elected officials. A year into this, the city of Chicago tried to shut my son’s school, which sparked community organizing — and has given me perspective on how school involvement can escalate from PTA bake sales to full-time advocacy.
Volunteering has given me warm fuzzies, and some great friends, but I’ve made mistakes, too. With this in mind, and now that I’m graduating to being a middle school parent, I offer suggestions for the newbie school parent.
Why are you considering getting involved?
Before you respond to a PTA flier seeking volunteers, ask yourself: What are you hoping to achieve? Meet other parents, support your child’s teacher, make sure the school has enough Chromebooks? You don’t need to have the answers going in, but as time goes on, keep the question in mind. You want the time and energy you invest to align with your goals.
Are you a dreamer or a doer?
Lots of people have great ideas and strong opinions. Fewer have the time, energy, and dedication to see those ideas through. Yes, a bowling party would be great fun! But are you willing to organize it, or are you suggesting it so that someone else can?
Whichever category you fall into, develop an inclusive and tolerant mindset. If you like organizing, be sure to include people in different capacities, then chill out if things don’t go exactly how you wanted. If you have great ideas to share but can’t help make them happen, know that those ideas mightn’t see the light of day.
Go wide (get on the school council, say) or narrow (help with a discrete issue)
If a school needs fliers, and you know how to make them, offer your expertise. If you don’t know Indesign from in-laws but can secure a gift card from work for a raffle, fantastic. If your school has a well-established PTA and a small army of volunteers who have planned out Teacher Appreciation events for the next 200 years, maybe look for another way to help out.
Find the appropriate outlet for your aspirations. If you have strong feelings about funding, class sizes, capital improvements, testing, and the like, you might skip the friendly parent group that plans softball outings and run for the local school board, or join a citywide parent advocacy organization.
Is an offer to help welcome?
As a fresh, eager kindergarten parent, I couldn’t figure out why my son’s teacher wasn’t taking me up on my offer to do whatever she needed. Now, with the benefit of time, I see how eager beavers like me can be annoying and one more thing for a busy teacher to manage. As people who are responsible for young ones and went to school ourselves, we often think we know what schools need. But there’s plenty we don’t know about how a school runs. My son’s teacher was a pro who’d mastered the art of getting 28 kindergarteners to sit quietly and learn. She didn’t need distractions.
When you’re offering help, keep other members of the school community top of mind. The podcast “Nice White Parents” tells the story of some parents in Brooklyn, New York, who strode into a gentrifying school and ignored the families already there in order to remake it in their own image. Don’t do this.
Put your involvement in context. Some schools raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at benefit dinners, while nearby schools scrounge for toilet paper. Parents need to do right by their kids, but should also try to see the bigger picture.
Is the school resisting feedback it needs?
In some cases, of course, you may have legitimate goals or complaints. Maybe your child qualifies for special services and isn’t getting them. Maybe the school needs a facilities upgrade. It’s easy for involvement to slide into advocacy.
Much of the above still applies. Out of respect for others in the school community, follow the appropriate chain of command. Start with the teacher, if it makes sense, before going to the principal or even social media. Make friends, because bigger changes require group action. While school can feel very personal, many families and schools have issues in common, and there’s a lot in education that needs fixing. And when you’re at your tenth board meeting in a row, fighting for your cause and wondering how you got there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.