We’ve all been inundated by email requests from our child’s school to chaperone the latest field trip, bring food for the class breakfast, bake cookies for the holiday party and help sell at the book fair. Many of us end up deleting these emails—and then feel guilty. Of course we want to volunteer at the school, but when exactly is that supposed to happen given our crammed calendars? After interviewing working mothers around the country about their biggest work-parent juggle concerns for my book, I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms, I’m happy to say I have some easy ways to volunteer without falling behind at work.
1. Be an early bird.
Remember back in grade school when you avoided eye contact with the teacher if you didn’t know the answer to a question? Then you learned that the best defense is a good offense: You raised your hand quickly for a question you could answer so you’d be off the hook for the rest of the discussion. You can apply this principle to school volunteering—jump in early if you can’t necessarily jump often. “I send my children’s teachers a note at the start of the school year explaining that I don’t have much time to volunteer during the year but would like to find a few ways to help the classroom,” says one busy mom of three. By doing this, and following through on the teachers’ suggestions, she doesn’t worry about the deluge of email requests throughout the rest of the year.
2. Make sure you’re noticeable.
You’re busy at work, so it’s probably best to volunteer to do something you can do at home, at night, after the kids go to bed, right? Wrong! Forget offering to buy and drop off party supplies before school, or tally weekly class reading logs, or attend a nighttime committee meeting. Your child is not going to appreciate (or even recognize) that you’re pitching in, and she’s the one you’re doing this for, yes? Instead, think visibility, suggests Massachusetts-based child psychologist Jennifer Berz, PhD. Pick volunteer experiences where your child can see you participate and that will also likely lead to a pleasant time together: Sign up for the Halloween party or a trip to the zoo. Offer to read a book or do an art project or explain a holiday ritual for the classroom, where you’ll be front and center.
3. Show and tell in the classroom.
Another option for contributing to your child’s class in a way that fits your schedule is to showcase one of your particular professional skills. What kind of demonstration can you do that would be fun for kids that perhaps ties into your work? My husband, a 3D artist for videogames, felt bad that he never volunteered at the school (yep, dads often feel the heat to volunteer too). So he asked our daughter’s teacher if she would like him to come to class and show the kids an animation program on his laptop. The teacher was delighted; the students loved watching my husband making kooky monsters on screen; our daughter was proud as can be; and my husband served his duty in an enjoyable way, even offering to do it again. We recently saw this teacher, who told my husband that the kids still talk about the demonstration, and that she’d love him to do it again. If you’re thinking, Yeah, yeah, but my job is not as cool for kids as video-game animation, that may be true. But that doesn’t mean you can’t whip up a child-friendly presentation around your skill set. Example: If you are in accounting, bring in Monopoly money and give the kids a creative math lesson on what happens when you overspend. Just make sure you test your presentation on your kid ahead of time (or borrow someone else’s child).
4. Pour on the appreciation.
Even with no free time right now, there’s something else you can and should do: Send a thank-you note to your child’s teacher, coach or mentor, expressing gratitude for the guidance, attention and support she gives your child. Some may call this sucking up: I call it proper thanks few teachers receive. “I very rarely get notes from parents—it’s usually from ex-students,” says my friend Jill, a teacher in Colorado. “Whenever I do get any notes of appreciation, I read them over to remind myself of why I do my job and why I love it still!” Customize your note with details so it feels unique. One working mom of three told me: “Last year, I was creating a start-up, and the only time I wasn’t working was during family mealtimes or when putting the kids to bed.” So she wrote the teachers to explain why she wasn’t volunteering and say how much she appreciated their support of her kids during this tough time. “They both emailed me back and told me they so appreciated my email and not to worry about it.
5. Remember other parent volunteers.
While you’re spreading the appreciation, also thank the moms and dads of classmates who spend a lot of time making sure the class runs well: class parents who update about the class trip to the aquarium, lead a fundraising event for the earthquake victims and purchase end-of-year teacher gifts. Hey, you don’t have to do this stuff because they do it. Consider going one step further and inviting classroom parents over for a holiday wine-and-cheese night or organizing an evening out to get to know one another better.
Michelle Cove (michellecove.com) is the author of I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms, Seeking Happily Ever After: Navigating the ups and down of being single without losing your mind, which is based on her award-winning documentary, Seeking Happily Ever After, and the co-author of the national bestseller I’m Not Mad, I just Hate You! A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict.