When my first child was born, I cut my work schedule to part-time hours. The arrangement was a good one because I earned money at a job that was important to me and I had extra time at home to figure out the whole parenting thing.
The benefits of having two days off during the week grew as my children did. And when they were old enough for school, I’d sometimes use my free time to volunteer in the classroom. Being there let me glimpse parts of my kids’ lives that otherwise would have been invisible to me. Just as important, my children saw that I was interested in what they were doing in school.
Now, that era is coming to a close. Soon I’ll return to a full-time work schedule, which means I’ll no longer be available to volunteer during the day. It wasn’t a difficult choice. All it took to convince me were a couple of home heating oil bills. But making a decision is a lot easier than living with it. With one child going into 5th grade, I still have a few years left to help out at school and I’m already grieving the loss.
Decades of research has made it clear that being involved in your children’s education pays off in many ways. Every time a parent helps a child with homework, shows up for a school event, or has a conversation with a teacher, the child sees that education is worth spending time on. The result is higher academic achievement.
What the research doesn’t show is that being involved in a child’s education makes parents better at what they do, too. I’ve gained a lot during my years in and out of the classroom. I came to know my kids’ classmates not just by their names but also as people. Being around children with so little self-consciousness and so much creativity has been inspirational. There was the girl with the outsize personality and leopard-print wardrobe who, in 3rd grade, loved the teacher so much that she organized all the parents and a handful of school staff to throw a surprise party for her.
There was my son’s entire 2nd grade class, which would have made a good case study in economics. The kids spontaneously developed a free-market economy, fueled by pencil tips instead of cash. During snack time, the students would set out their wares, exchanging tiny pieces of pencil lead for valuable merchandise like erasers and paper fortunetellers. The teacher finally quashed the game when one girl accumulated too much inventory on her desk and had to do her schoolwork on her lap. But the ban merely drove the kids underground, and a black-market trade flourished for the remainder of the year.
In both cases, my kids would have told me about their friends and I would have wondered what they were like. But I didn’t have to wonder because I was there to yell “Surprise!” when the 3rd grade teacher returned to the classroom and because I saw the stockpiles of pencil tips and price lists tucked inside the 2nd graders’ desks. I was part of it—part of my own children’s lives.
As I got to know my kids’ classmates, I became friends with some of their parents. Over the years, we’ve relied on one another for everything from insight into classroom dynamics to last-minute rides home from after-school activities. I’ve tapped into the network countless times. Sometimes it takes three or four parents piecing together bits of information to figure out for sure when the science project is due or whether the menace on the playground is pushing other kids off the swing. Being a parent can sometimes feel lonely, but less so when you can talk with others who not only know your child but are also going through pretty much the same thing.
Every teacher I’ve interacted with as a volunteer has taught me something new about my children. And at least once—when my son was in preschool and his teacher cheerfully announced that after six months of refusing to say a word, he had become “quite the family reporter”—my children have taught their teachers something new about me.
I’ve been bemoaning my change in work status for weeks now. But I think I’m ready for the mourning period to end. Even though I’ll be bound to my desk during the day instead of free to take volunteer assignments that happen to fall on Tuesday or Thursday, I know I’ll continue to be an essential part of my children’s schooling. My evenings will still be free to monitor their homework and go to PTO meetings. And the parent network is already in place and ready for me to dial into whenever there’s an assignment or an incident on the playground to sort out.
I’m still trying to figure out the whole parenting thing, only by now I’ve had years of education to help me along.
How To Get Involved
You don’t have to volunteer in your child’s classroom to make a difference. Parent involvement means many different things, from reading to your child to helping her get organized for homework to communicating with the teacher to attending after-school events to volunteering with the PTO or PTA. All of these show your child that school is an important part of your family life.
Ask a Question
Start by asking your child about school. Saying “Tell me something you learned today” shows him that you’re interested in what happens in the classroom.
Talk With the Teacher
Students do best when their parents and teachers work together as partners. Tell the teacher about any issues at home that may affect your child’s performance. Information about your child’s learning style, special interests, and strengths and weaknesses can also help.
Attend School Events
Open house, orientation, and conference nights provide an opportunity to get to know teachers. Attending family events such as a concert, reading night, or carnival at school helps create an important connection between home and school in your child’s mind. They’re also great for meeting other parents in your child’s class.
People often are afraid of getting pulled into hours of unexpected commitment when they volunteer. But just an hour or two a semester can make a real difference for schools. And there are many jobs that can be done at home during off hours. Check with your school’s parent-teacher group for details about how you can help.