When I was 6 years old, my mom volunteered on a field trip and I became a rock star. I remember everything about her on that day. Her hair was long and straight and auburn. She smelled like perfume and wore a long coat over jeans and a turtleneck, like Diane Keaton in everything. Kids wanted to sit beside her on the bus to the fall fair, but bad news for them, she had to sit beside me. Even when she said, “Come on, honey, give someone else a turn,” like she was a merry-go-round or something, I said no way. I always had to share her with my cuter, younger brothers. That was law, but these kids could forget it. All day long, she was mine, all mine. She held my hand. She bought me caramel corn. I fake-slept on her shoulder on the way home and she went along with the charade. It was a perfect day.
When I became a mom, I wanted this to be me: I wanted my kids, all four of them, to feel like I was theirs, all theirs, for the day. I don’t think that’s why you’re supposed to volunteer at your kids’ school, but that is why I did it. And other than the good outfit and hair and perfume, I pulled it off. The secret to my success, I like to think, was mastering the art of being a high-profile, low-output volunteer mom.
You can’t just show up at the school and say, “I’d like to volunteer. Put me to work.” No, no, that is exactly how you end up cleaning out the kindergarten hamster cage or cutting out 1,000 construction paper hearts alone in a room. Those jobs are low-profile, high-output. And congratulations to you if that’s what you want, but if you really want to just engage with your kid, have fun, and become friends with the cool teachers, here’s how you do it.
No to meetings!
Do you like being in a room with a resentful teacher and a few sanctimonious moms? Do you like to sit with an agenda as long as your arm that is pretty much the same every month, in a room where there’s always one parent who has just one more point to make and I’m pretty sure the point is “You are never going home and nothing is ever happening and you will grow old in that plastic chair with the smell of baby carrots and ranch dip from the veggie tray permanently in your nose”? No? Then don’t do parent/teacher council.
Choose your field trips wisely.
Being chaperone for a day is a promising category, but tread carefully. Not all field trips are created equal. My best field trips were going to fall fairs, the maple bush, museums where the kids are allowed to touch the stuff, hikes to a local grotto, and any time there’s a movie playing ever. (Although make sure it’s not a movie that makes you cry. I’ll never live down bawling my way through Up with my son’s class.)
Here’s what to avoid: You might think field trips to a theme park would be fun, but you would be oh-so-wrong. It’s a long day and always, always about 200 degrees with no shade. Kids go on roller coasters and then vomit their funnel cake all over the bus on the ride home. If you live in a small town, also avoid the big city field trips unless you’re really great at herding cats two-by-two along a narrow sidewalk.
Overnight field trips are hit and miss. Paris? Yes. Camping in the woods for two weeks (or two days)? No.
Help in the classroom (on fun stuff).
I would go to class and read with some of the students, help tie skates if we were at the skating rink, or record times for track and field at recess. This was especially great when I really liked my kid’s teacher, because we could hang out and be adults together — something that felt precious and sacred in the middle of a classroom.
I’ll admit, I skipped out on the high-output version of these tasks, which were things like lice checker and breakfast club helper. I was terrible at finding lice and also terrible at making breakfast on a weekday.
Go all in on holiday assemblies.
My sons went to a small school where holidays were a big deal. Christmas meant singalongs in the gym; Halloween meant a dance and a costume party. These are the Big Ticket Items of volunteering because they’re fun and festive and you almost always get mini candy bars. As an assembly organizer, you can make sure the kids get on stage with all their props, help stack chairs with the other parents (also oddly fun), or decorate themed cupcakes or cookies. All great.
I wanted my kids, all four of them, to feel like I was theirs, all theirs, for the day. I don’t think that’s why you’re supposed to volunteer at your kids’ school, but that is why I did it.
My kids have never told me if they liked me volunteering. I don’t think they ever really had had their shiny hair moment with me, like I did with my mom. But I got to spend their school years pretending to be an amazing mom while gossiping with the teachers and gorging on leftover cupcake frosting from the Halloween parties.
Still a rock star. Still a perfect fall day.