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Juggling Act: Can Working Moms Still Volunteer at School?

When I was a child, my mother, who worked full-time and raised four children, rarely ever came to my school; my siblings and I took the school bus both ways every day, and no one expected her to do anything more than make sure we arrived dressed, bathed, and with our homework completed.

Today, things are drastically different; mothers seem to be expected to be very involved in their children’s classrooms. As one working mom from Greenville, South Carolina, reflects, “Scarcely a week goes by that we don’t have to send a check for something and/or provide something out of the norm (a dish, a present, a special piece of equipment, etc.) that requires time to bake and/or go to a store. It’s tiresome, and there’s never extra notice (e.g., ‘Here are the special things we’re doing this month. Please send $x to cover x, y, and z, and please remember to send x on x date, y on y date, and z on z date’).”

My own son’s elementary school offers daily and weekly volunteer positions, and during most school hours, a mother (or the occasional father) is in the classroom as a teacher’s helper. Although I work from home, I can manage only one day/one hour per week, as a writing specialist, and I feel a twinge of guilt because I inevitably have to say no to helping out with art projects, science projects, luncheon and party planning, and field-trip needs. Most working moms would love to participate more, but clearly, it’s hard to swing. Perhaps more working moms need to reach out to their children’s teachers to let them know they work long, demanding hours and have busy travel schedules. In addition, given that reality, many husbands/partners may need to start stepping up and getting more involved. If your spouse works closer to your child’s school or works more flexible hours, have him volunteer in your place—it should be an equal-opportunity parental option.

With that said, I know there are still many moms out there who just want to be able to spend some time with their children at school. And while it might not be possible to volunteer every week, working mothers can participate, with a creative strategizing. For example, Margaret Keene, group creative director for TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles, has a rigorous advertising job. She works long hours, including on some weekends, and travels for business. As the mom of two—Caroline, seven, and Kevin, five—she tries to make the most of any trip to school.

“If you’re really busy, don’t commit to a day or time [to volunteer in your child’s classroom],” she suggests. “You’ll just let everyone down. Teachers are usually working moms, too. Ask her if you can just show up randomly, any day. Maybe call right before you show up.”

This tactic may not work for kids in middle school, but many public elementary schools promote random drop-in visits. One thing Margaret likes to do in her daughter’s first-grade classroom and her son’s kindergarten is show up and read a story. “The easiest thing to sign up for is the early morning. Read a story to the class and be insanely animated; really play it up. The kids will want you back again and again, and your child will remember it forever,” she says.

Bringing small token presents for the entire class goes a long way, too, says Margaret. Pencils, stickers, and little erasers are always a hit with the younger set.

Alisa Adamson, the CEO of A³ Research, a boutique market-research consultancy company in Greenville, South Carolina, advises others to pick one field trip a year to volunteer for; this practice allows working mothers to plan in advance and either give their company notice or take a vacation day. “My strategy in participating in Joey’s school stuff is to try to do a few things that really count. I simply can’t be a room mother—that’s out of my league in terms of the time commitment. It’s easier for me to carve out an occasional whole day than to commit to an hour or so every week,” she says.

“The main thing I did last school year was to take a full day to chaperone a field trip to the regional Special Olympics, held at a nearby school for the deaf and blind. It was a huge opportunity to cheer for children we didn’t know, and to help our school’s children better understand some of the differences (and many similarities) they noticed among the children there. Our kids got to walk with the athletes in the opening ceremony—it was immensely touching, and I would love to do it again,” Alisa adds.

If you are really feeling the tug to be more involved on a weekly basis, see if you can work from home one day a week and volunteer during your lunch hour. One mom of two actually managed to integrate a flex day into her schedule so she could spend time at her son’s school.

“As a (necessary) survival tactic, I worked a ‘flex day’ into my schedule: Wednesday. Staff in my office know to avoid scheduling calls or meetings for me on that day,” says Marcie Carson, principal and creative director for IE Design + Communications in Hermosa Beach, California.

“I come into the office for a couple hours, work from home, volunteer at school, do errands, doctor appointments, et cetera. I can work in sweats, maybe even grab a workout. That said, Wednesday doesn’t always remain ‘open’—I probably only get two or three flex days a month—but it helps to juggle it all,” she adds.

For those of you who can’t get to school at all, Margaret says to just try to keep up with the schedule of big events, so your child isn’t left behind. It’s easy to get caught up in work, but be sure that your husband or nanny gives you the school schedule so you know when some parties and events may occur.

“If your kid is young (under six), make sure you take the entire day off on Halloween or for the Mother’s Day tea. There are a couple days a year when all the stay-at-home moms take their kids home after the party and your poor kid is left there all alone after you leave. It’s horrible,” says Margaret, recalling her own experience.

And for those of you who just can’t get to school but want the teachers to know you care, consider sending them a note explaining your workload and then, at some point in the year, send them a little gift of appreciation.

“When you have a minute, go to Home Depot. They have amazing orchids. Buy them for all the teachers; don’t forget the aides. Don’t do it on a birthday or teachers’ day—just let them know you did it because they’re great and you appreciate them. Sometimes happy, appreciated teachers are better off than those [who might not feel appreciated] but have you in the classroom each week,” Margaret adds.

What strategies do you working moms out there have for becoming more involved in your kids’ classrooms? Chime in!