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As your baby makes the transition from preschool to kindergarten, consider your own orientation into this brave new world. The PTA will come calling, your child's teacher will reach out and the Girl Scouts (or other well-intentioned group) will pass the sign-up sheet — again and again. Approach with caution and learn from my enthusiastic, all-too-eager-to-please and helper-to-a fault lessons from my rookie year.
1. Pass the clip board: Resist the urge to scribble your name on every single sign-up sheet. Commit to one (maybe two) volunteer opportunities. Take notes at back-to-school night and your first PTA meeting for future potential opportunities to help. There will likely be activities and events every single month where your help will be welcomed. Be conservative with your time until you get comfortable with this new scene. A burned out and resentful volunteer is the opposite of helpful.
2. Play to your strengths: Do you hate asking for money? Don't sign up for the fundraising committee. Were you a theater arts major? By all means, jump on board with the winter musical. Do you despise red tape and politics? Avoid the PTA altogether, send in your check and get yourself in the classroom with those kids. Students have a way of reminding you of the real reason you wanted to give back to the school in the first place. And if you work outside of the home, ask your teacher if you can take home projects. He or she will happily hand over the construction paper and scissors in preparation for a big art project.
3. Self-awareness be thy best friend: Sober up, mama. Accept that you might be a little buzzed from the heady excitement of back to school. The smell of freshly sharpened pencils may have gone to your head and you found yourself on every single email list. Now you're fielding requests to (wo)man the Harvest Festival, clean up the garden and plan every class party from Halloween to Cinco de Mayo. Take a cold, hard look at your long-established household and/or work commitments. Chances are your calendar is already pretty full. Now look at all those new volunteer requests and pick one where you can easily make an impact. This is not the year to learn a new accounting software just because the PTA doesn't have a controller. This is the year to put your already time-tested talents to good use, one baby step at a time.
4. "No" is a complete sentence: Practice makes perfect with this one. If you got carried away in that first rush to "help," start sending emails today establishing your inability to help with whatever fools-errand you signed up for. Be nice. You'll be volunteering alongside these folks for years to come and you'll more than likely call in favors from them in the future. But every veteran school volunteer understands the naive enthusiasm that comes with being a kinder parent. With a kind, but firm, tone simply explain that you bit off more than you could chew and you won't be able to help with X, Y or Z at this time.
5. Show up: Attending the monthly meetings and supporting the various school fundraisers and community events will go a long way in cementing your sense of place in the school. You don't have to sit behind a booth or chair a party. Organizers appreciate all those smiling faces of support (and the kind "thank yous") from those who may not have the time or bandwidth to participate behind the scenes. You can always offer to clean up, stack chairs and take down decorations if you're feeling particularly motivated at the tail end of an event. An extra pair of hands will almost never be turned down.
6. Ask for help: If you find yourself overwhelmed with your one commitment, do not hide your face in shame. Raise your hand and use your loud and proud voice. Talk to the volunteer coordinator, the person who had your volunteer role last year or even the PTA president and let them know you are struggling. Trust me. They would rather find you some support than lose your involvement. A strong community knows that its strength and longevity rely on fresh recruits who will stick around for the long haul. Or at least through fifth grade.
7. Get organized: However you come by the title of class mom (I got it by default) or volunteer lunch lady, accept your role and gather your tools immediately. Take advantage of your fellow parents' fresh, new year enthusiasm. Get email addresses and cell phone numbers from every parent you meet (especially those in your child's classroom) and create email lists related to your specific job. Meet with your teacher or volunteer chair to get a realistic idea of expectations, big annual projects and resources that may be available. For example: Does your teacher have electronic versions of the party sign-up sheets from previous years? There's no sense in recreating the wheel if you can simply customize a template that already exists.
8. Plan ahead. Does your teacher have a classroom wish list? Do you have a Costco card? Decide how much you can afford to donate to your child's classroom and buy some basic supplies in bulk. Most teachers appreciate staples like facial tissue, wipes, liquid hand soap, pencils, erasers and copy paper. Keep the extra supplies in your garage and let your teachers know you're happy to bring in the goods as they are needed, if classroom storage is an issue.
9. Grow your network. Form connections with parents from around your school. You never know when their expertise will come in handy. You may not be the crafty kind, but having the art docent chair on speed dial will come in handy when you're desperate for the hard-to-find art supplies. Plug in every contact as soon as you meet a new parent on campus.
10. Take a break. Avoid burn out. Review the school calendar every month and identify the activities and events that you can commit to in advance and let go of the ones that won't work for your schedule. Establishing personal boundaries for yourself and your family is the key to maintaining a healthy relationship with your new community.
Most importantly, try to enjoy this time. It's fleeting. Before you know it, your babies will be tweens and avoiding all public appearances with you. Spending time on campus or taking home prep work for your littles' teacher will give you an extra special connection to their early educational experience.