From supporting teachers to planning celebrations to raising money, the work of most school volunteers is urgent and endless. So how do you enhance your kid's education without stretching yourself too thin? Here, parents -- classroom veterans as well as eager newbies -- share tips on smart, effective ways to lend a hand. Plus, three sure-fire ideas for volunteer snack-duty.
I go in at the beginning of the school year and help get the classroom organized. From labeling books for the class library to making copies and putting together workbooks, I take care of things that the teachers would usually do on their own time.
Lisa Ely Lake
Many teachers appreciate donations of classroom recess or playground equipment. I've given a game or two for indoor recess and balls and jump ropes for outdoor fun.
Once in a while, I let my kids' teachers know that I'll be taking care of their lunch, then send bags to school with the kids. The teachers are excited to have a meal that they don't have to make, buy, or think about.
When I was class parent, I'd ask teachers for a wish list of items for the classroom. Then I'd use that list to give other parents ideas for holiday teacher gifts.
Fort Smith, AR
For a teacher with a July birthday, we threw a surprise classroom party for her half birthday in January. She was very touched.
During Teacher Appreciation Week, we spruce up the staff bathrooms. A group of parent volunteers equip the room with scented lotions, nice toilet paper, air freshener, and a few small decorations, such as a vase of flowers. Surprisingly, it's the teachers' favorite part of the week. They just love it!
Before you can organize parents, you need to get to know them. Early on in the school year, we plan a moms' night out or a happy hour for parents to meet and mingle. There is also a casual book club for parents, to keep everyone social throughout the school year. It is easier to ask parents to volunteer when you all know one another.
As the room parent, I give the other moms and dads a short survey during orientation. I ask which kind of tasks interest them and how they would like to volunteer. The survey gets parents engaged right from the start. Then I refer to the forms when I need party or classroom helpers or someone to send in treats.
Our school takes a team approach to holiday celebrations. Parents in each class are separated into four teams; those teams are responsible for snacks, activities, and entertainment for just one holiday. With three children in the school, I chose a different holiday for each. That way, I could focus on one fun snack or activity at a time.
It can be very hard for parents to volunteer in a classroom when they still have little ones at home. I started a play group for moms and tots at our elementary school. While our little ones play, we work on a project for one of the teachers.
Readers Dede Bessey and Carolyn Metaxas had a similar, brilliant idea for making an educator's life easier. On the first day of school, they send in a "just in case" kit, filled with little essentials like those shown to the right.
1. Adhesive notes
2. Lint roller
3. Gold stars
4. Nice pen
5. Hand cream
8. Sewing kit
9. Nail file
13. Pain reliever
14. Snack for teacher
16. Lip balm
The teacher will love you for bringing these treats because they're a little less sugary -- and the kids will love you because the treats are fun.
1. Snack-Mix Buffet
Fill colorful bowls and buckets with a mix of sweet and savory munchies. Our healthy take includes popcorn, pretzels, low-sugar cereal, and dried fruit, plus white chocolate chips and animal crackers for kid appeal. Provide single-serving bags and plenty of scoops and spoons.
2. Watermelon Pizza
Top 1-inch-thick rounds of seedless watermelon with 2 tablespoons of strawberry jam. Sprinkle on halved green grapes, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, and sweetened coconut flakes. Slice the rounds like pizzas and serve.
3. Funny Face Fruit Cups
If your child's school allows packaged snacks only, bring cellophane- topped fruit cups jazzed up with permanent marker.
Our school encourages room parents to set up a Shutterfly Share Site. It's an easy, private way to stay in touch, and it's quick to set up! We can share pictures and news and send e-mails to our site members. There's a calendar and a sign-up list for volunteers. At the end of the year, there's the option of ordering a book featuring all the photos parents have uploaded -- a great teacher gift or memento.
I organize school parties and events with SignUpGenius.com. Instead of sending out an e-mail with a list of things needed and then having to sort through all the replies, I can create one central list that everyone has access to. The inbox clutter and double sign-ups are a thing of the past!
To cover expected expenses for parties, field trips, and more, collect money at the beginning of the year. It's much easier to ask for money once rather than every other week. If the amount is too large for some families to pay all at once, invite them to break it into smaller payments made over time.
Lake Balboa, CA
Before planning any parties, find out if there are any kids with food allergies in the class and get in touch with their parents. They'll probably be very willing to help find safe foods, teach you to read labels, and so on. They may also be willing to buy or prepare safe foods for the class.
I always keep extra party supplies in the trunk of my car, just in case someone forgets to send things in on the designated day. My stash includes cups, plates, napkins, forks, games, and even crafts. These supplies come in handy for impromptu family picnics, too!
Anticipating that there would be leftovers from the many classroom Christmas parties, I arranged with the school to collect the food. I nearly filled the bed of our full-size pickup! Then my daughters and I delivered the goodies to a local homeless shelter. The teachers were grateful for the cleanup, and they loved the spirit in which the chore was handled.
At the end of the school year, I sent home gift bags with a CD of all the pictures I'd taken during the year. It was truly appreciated by the working parents who couldn't attend every class event. They got to see their kids having fun, and the children now have a great keepsake to enjoy as they get older.
Merritt Island, FL
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine.