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A mom writes movingly about what it means to be involved in her child's school and education. A must-read for any parent who has ever thought about volunteering at school.

The email arrived on one of those gray-shrouded winter days when light-starved people reposition their desk lamps in a desperate attempt to absorb vitamin D. The message was from a fellow parent asking for volunteers to help plan the 8th grade semiformal. Outside it was bone-cracking cold, but the words “June dance” propelled me forward into warm breezes and fragrant night air.

It was just what I needed to lift me out of my winter darkness. And even more important, it would shed some figurative—but no less vital—light on my daughter’s school. The opportunities to volunteer had dwindled as my daughter moved up the grades so by the time she entered a new building in 8th grade, they were all but gone. School had become a shadowy place populated by faculty, staff, and kids whose names I didn’t know.

That evening my daughter wandered into the kitchen while I was packing the next day’s lunches. I told her about the email.

She stiffened. “You can help out, but you are not going to chaperone.” The force of her words nearly knocked the peanut butter knife from my grip. I opened my mouth, but before I could speak, she added, “Because if you do, I’m not going.” She folded her arms across her chest and raised her eyebrows at me.

My first thought was, “Well, I guess that means you’ll miss the naked baby pictures I’ll be showing around to all of your classmates.” My second, almost simultaneous thought was of how when I was in 8th grade, the mere existence of my mother sent me into spasms of mortification. And my third thought was, Thank goodness I got in eight years of volunteering at my daughter’s schools before she slammed the doors shut on me. And thank you, too, to the PTO, which opened the doors in the first place, invited me in, and gave me something to do.

I nearly didn’t join the PTO. I figured all of those women (and they were all women) already knew each other and wouldn’t want an outsider nosing around in their business. I didn’t think I fit the part of a PTO parent. I like kids, but not nearly as much as I like my own. I’m disorganized. I can’t bake, or cook, or keep track of money. But I wanted to find out what was happening in my daughter’s elementary school, so I went to a meeting. From there it was easy to volunteer (they passed a sheet around and I signed it), and pretty soon I learned two things: first, the PTO actually wants people to nose around in their business; and second, everybody fits the part of a PTO parent—even me.

Joining the PTO is a great way to learn about your child’s school and to meet other parents. But being an active member does so much more. Decades of studies have shown that children whose parents are involved in their education have higher grades and are more likely to graduate than those whose parents aren’t involved. They have better attendance, are more motivated, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol or engage in violent behavior. When it comes to academic achievement, parent involvement is more critical than income, education level, or cultural background.

There’s a payoff for parents and schools, too. Involved parents tend to feel self-confident and in control. They meet new people, which strengthens and expands their social networks. They become better educated about child development, and they tend to have positive rapport with the school. Teacher morale increases and schools become stronger.

Being involved with your child’s education doesn’t begin and end in the school, of course. Parents need to show interest in their children’s learning, read to them, and help with homework. But there’s something about going into the classroom to help the teacher, or making posters for science night, or supervising the kids at recess that tightens the relationship between home and school for everyone—parents, children, and teachers. When enough parents join the PTO and put their collective creativity, talents, skills, and resources toward the same objective, they’re capable of just about anything. I’ve belonged to two PTOs so far and have watched each perform magic many times over. Starting with nothing, they have created fairs and family nights, conjured programs and performances, bought equipment and supplies that make teaching easier or more interesting and school more fun. They’ve helped kids pay for field trips and thrown their organizing power behind campaigns to support our districts’ schools.

But, as I realized that day packing lunches in my kitchen, joining the PTO is a limited-time offer. If you don’t act soon, the opportunity will be lost forever. I’m so glad that I acted when I did. Because the eight years since my daughter had been a kindergartner had raced by and deposited her at the other side of childhood—the side that tilts much too steeply toward adulthood.

Of course, just because I’m the mother of a 14-year-old (which, by definition, makes me an embarrassment), I don’t intend to stop being involved in my daughter’s education. I’ll just have to look harder for more opportunities to get into her school. I’ve already assured her that when I find some, we’ll pretend we don’t know each other—just like I did with my mom.

Comments   

#4 7th Grader 2009-08-23 18:52
According to some of my old classmates, I'm a "dork" for a couple reasons. For me, I don't mind hugging or kissing my Mama in public, and she used to help serve lunch at my school every Tuesday. I always went to visit her, even when I brought lunch from home. Most people just laughed, or stared. But I didn't care. MY mom doesn't really WANT to go help at dances or anything like that. She wants to be a part of my life, but she knows the drill. She knows that calling me "cutie pie" in public is not a good move for her or for me. For me, I tell my mom everything, so she knows what I like for her to do, and what I don't.
#3 7th grader 2008-09-06 17:12
From the point of view of a 7th grader, yes, we do hate it when parents try to chaperone dances. We have enough teachers for that, and we act stupid around them anyway but don't have to talk about it for the rest of our lives with them. And if you do choose to help out on the playground or something, your children would probably appreciate it if you didn't try to tell embarrassing stories around their friends or remind them about their Silly Seal Scouts meeting on friday with their entire class not five feet away. Also, if volunteering interferes with your work schedule, please do not complain to us. We didn't sign you up.
#2 cindy 2008-06-10 17:02
Being involved at my children's school is a high priority for me and my 4 boys. As parents we really do only have a "limited time" before our kids grow up. At the elementary level, I've heard all my boys tell another classmate or teacher when I'm at school "That's my mom, she helping w/fall fest or holiday store" (or whatever event we're having at the time). There is pride in their voice and security in their hearts having us involved. I know we all can't dedicate hours upon hours at our children's school, (it's just one of the easier places to keep in touch with your kids), and it's a tremendous help. I also am a working mom (40+ hours a week), plus my husband and I run a home-based business, plus I am currently our PTC treasurer , then add in the daily grind of housework, schoolwork and other extra-curricula r activities, time is slim---however- --life is short, spend as much time w/your kiddos as possible be it at school or not.
#1 gina santiago 2008-06-04 13:23
hi i really don't agree with having to be a helper at recess or any were at school I beieve it starts at home i have three chidren age a boy of 13 a daughter of 18 and a son of 24 as they were growing up i could not be at school activities very often because i had to work but i've always been involved at home as much as possilble always asked questions helped with homework praised them and was there for main activities went to every after school dance and chaperoned every single dance even the eighth grade dances for all my children the way i got close to my kids was that i always let there friends come over and visit get to know who they hung out with and what there interest were and neither one of my kids are embarresed the ask me to go to any school activity good luck

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