volunteering as unpaid labor

Volunteering as Unpaid Labor

I have had the great fortune of being a stay at home mom for most of my adult life.  In my experience, one of the job expectations is that SAHMs will volunteer at their children’s school.  Lots of working moms and and an increasing number of dads spend hours volunteering as well, but as a SAHM, I felt strong internal and external pressure to contribute.  

When my kids started elementary school, I jumped in with both feet.  I scheduled regular weekly visits to the classroom where I graded tests, prepped projects, read with kids, and did crafts.  I volunteered as room mom almost every year, for each of my 3 children, I planned parties and sent out email reminders for upcoming events.  I went on field trips to the zoo and the museum. I joined the Parent/Teacher organization, went to meetings, and had welcome parties and fundraising parties at my house.  I wrote letters and went to school board meetings to advocate for programs.

I went on like this for years and for the most part, I relished the work.  There were so many perks to being involved. I knew the names of all of the kids in the class.  My kids were always excited to see me and when I asked them about their days, I had intimate knowledge of their classrooms, schedules, playmates and teachers.  I was able to have regular contact with their teachers and knew right away if there was ever an issue. I knew how my kids were performing in relation to their classmates, where they were weak and where they were strong.  

I got so much out of volunteering, but you know what I didn’t get?  Paid. Over the years I have contributed hundreds and hundreds of hours to our elementary school, maybe even thousands.  Financially, my family could afford for me to work for free. I believe in public schools and it felt good to be present for my kids and help other kids at the same time.  But over the years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the volunteering status quo.

Because I was financially able to volunteer, my family received many benefits that other families did not.  This study from 2014 shows that higher parental involvement leads to better student achievement.  If that’s the case, parents who can afford to stay home, or work part time, flexible schedules, are able to positively affect the academic success of their students.  Great! Who wouldn’t want to improve their child’s chance at success? The problem is that many, many families can’t afford to volunteer, so this seemingly altruistic practice, potentially widens the achievement gap between wealthy and low income students.  Not an ideal result for anyone working toward a more equitable society.

The above referenced study also notes that politicians are using the results to affect policy decisions.  If parental involvement = better academic success, let’s create policies that force schools to rely more heavily on parent volunteers.  I see this as a thinly veiled way to further cut school budgets. Over the 13 years that my kids have been in school, I’ve watched school budgets plummet.  In our school district, that means more parents have had to volunteer more time to raise more funds to keep essential programs like PE and science. Those budget cuts have the actual effect of requiring more unpaid volunteer hours, largely by women, which in turn, serves to exacerbate the gender wage gap.

Am I proposing that we all stop volunteering at our kids’ schools?  Of course not. It’s fun and rewarding and our teachers really need our help, but perhaps we could consider some of these small changes to our volunteer efforts:

  1. Try setting aside a portion of your volunteer hours to a school that has fewer resources and parents who can contribute, or to a public library tutoring program, which serves low income students.
  2. Support local and national candidates who prioritize funding for high quality public school education that is accessible to all children.
  3. Advocate for family friendly, flexible job policies, which allow more parents the opportunity to be involved.

What are your thoughts about volunteering at school?  Do you have ideas for helping outside of the classroom to work toward a more equitable educational system?

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