Why I No Longer Say Yes To Every Volunteer Request

by Kate Fries
Originally Published: 
A volunteer woman smiling next to five happy children

There are six weeks left in the school year, and I’m counting them down as eagerly as my sixth grader. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that parents need summer break just as much, if not more, than the kids. I need a break.

I have two children. My oldest is 11 and about to graduate from elementary school. My youngest is 9. That means I’ve been volunteering at their school events and extracurricular activities, in one capacity or another, since my oldest began kindergarten in 2008.

It’s true, nobody has forced me to volunteer. I help out in classrooms and school-wide activities because I want to be involved in my kids’ educations, and because I do really enjoy it. As a work-from-home parent whose job description has at times been defined more by the “from home” than the “work” part of my title, I’ve often felt being at home with nothing to do is a weirdly indulgent and privileged luxury I don’t really deserve. And so, in order to quash my feelings of uselessness, I do my part. Not just because the public schools my kids have attended rely heavily on parent volunteerism, but because I realize I am fortunate to have the time to give.

But man, sometimes it is a chore.

The first elementary school my kids attended, a small school in a small district in the Bay Area, had a warm culture of parent involvement. The school relied on parents to help in the classroom, organize fundraising efforts, and coordinate and supervise extracurricular activities. I always felt there was a real partnership between the teachers, administration and parents. Everyone recognized we were all in this together, and it was hard not to get swept up in that enthusiasm. Many parents, even working parents, found time to spend at least one day a month at school. Many parents did a lot more. I know exactly how much everyone did because as PTA historian, I spent two years keeping track of our parents’ volunteer hours.

In those years, I wore a lot of different volunteer hats. As an overzealous first-time kindergarten parent, I signed up for anything that sounded vaguely interesting.

I faithfully attended PTA meetings for two years, until I was recruited to serve on the board—first as historian, then secretary. I was a room parent. I helped put together the yearbook. I worked in my kids’ classrooms during language arts and physical education. I helped out with the Walking Club and coached an after-school Girls on the Run group (despite not having daughters). I was a founding member of something called the Wellness Committee. I’m still not sure what the Wellness Committee actually did, but I was on it.

By the time my oldest had finished fourth grade, with two kids now in school and a part-time job as a language arts instructor and writing tutor at a nearby private school, I was feeling overworked and burned out on volunteering. For the most part, I enjoyed the work, and I valued the friendships I had formed with other parents and teachers. But I also knew that I couldn’t do it all. I no longer wanted to do it all. I kind of hated doing it all. I came to the realization that the things I enjoyed most—PTA, Walking Club and helping in language arts—were far more fun for me than being a room parent (I am so not the Pinterest type) or supervising stations in physical education (which was like herding cats) or doing whatever the Wellness Committee did. I vowed to scale back and concentrate on only those few things I truly enjoyed the following year.

And then we moved, and I found myself navigating a new school with similar volunteer needs yet a very different volunteer culture. To facilitate our integration into the school’s community, I began to over-commit myself once again, even when I didn’t want to. That led me to robotics.

Robotics. In seven years of volunteering at my kids’ schools, coaching robotics has been the very worst of the jobs I’ve taken on. With very little (read: zero) actual engineering knowledge and not having taken any science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses beyond basic astronomy and a class called “Principles of Mathematics” in college, I nevertheless got roped into coaching a First Lego League robotics team. I didn’t even want to do it, but my participation meant the school could allow five more kids to participate. It was the only way my own son would have been able to join the team, and since he was new to the school and coming off of a fairly dismal Little League season, we wanted him to take part in an activity he enjoyed and meet kids who shared his interests.

I reluctantly volunteered to head up a robotics team, with the assurance from a more experienced coach that it was easy, and that our team would receive help from their more experienced coaches and team, if necessary. It didn’t quite pan out that way, and my co-coach, group of parent volunteers and I largely relied on trial and error to help our kids work through programming challenges. Eventually the kids understood the math formulas and robotics software better than we did, but there was a learning curve. And the amount of time we spent overcoming that curve meant we were very underprepared for the season-ending tournament.

On top of having very few qualifications to coach such a team, we met in late evening, after many of the kids had been through a full day of school and soccer practice. Ever try to get a group of tired and unruly kids to focus on programming a robot or working on a research project when there’s a room full of Legos to play with? Yeah. That’s what I was up against.

The good: The kids really did enjoy robotics, and my co-coach turned out to be a very cool mom with whom I shared a similar parenting style and common interests.

The bad: Everything else about robotics.

The kids were enthusiastic, the actual competition turned out to be a lot of fun, and in the end I’m glad my volunteer leadership allowed our school to field another team and expose more kids (especially the girls on our teams) to STEM concepts and careers they might pursue. But I never was able to shake the feeling that, with a different coach (perhaps one with an actual math or engineering background), the kids would have learned more and been more successful in the actual competition.

My experience with our new school’s PTA was similarly dismal. And my kids’ teachers, I found, didn’t really use parent volunteers in the same way they’d been utilized at our old school.

I did go back to robotics this year, again only so more kids could participate. But I no longer volunteer in my kids’ classrooms, and I didn’t go back to the PTA. I helped coach track this spring, and was able to draw on the 20-plus years I’ve spent as a runner to actually give the kids good advice. I felt useful in a way I didn’t feel all those years I spent as a room mom, robotics coach and Wellness Committee member.

When I coached the robotics team, I couldn’t help but feel I’d failed the kids. They could have learned more, done better in their competition, if I’d been a better coach. When I saw other parents being shamed for suggesting a new fundraiser to our new PTA, I was furious on their behalf. No parent or grandparent who chooses to volunteer his or her own time to should be made to feel like a failure. And no parent should feel obligated to volunteer for an activity that sucks all the joy out of volunteerism.

Our public schools need involved parents. With astronomical budget cutbacks, many rely on an army of parents and other community members to provide teachers with additional classroom help, keep extracurricular activities available, and raise money for extras like up-to-date technology and art supplies. It’s tempting for many parents to jump in and sign up for everything. And for the parents who enjoy that? It’s great. There were a lot of years I thought it was great. I could see how the students and my own children benefited from the work, and a lot of my own friendships were forged in the trenches of volunteerism.

I don’t regret being involved. But I am also done. Both of my kids are moving on to new schools next year. I will check out a PTA meeting or two, see where I may be needed, but I won’t blindly sign up for everything or allow myself to feel guilty if my non-participation prevents the participation of others. “Do what you love, love what you do” may be a trite statement when it comes to an actual vocation, but it’s kind of spot-on when applied to volunteer culture. From now on, I’m only volunteering for the things I love.

(Also, if you happen to find out what the Wellness Committee actually does, please tell me. You can find me at the track.)

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