Pulling the Plug

volunteerIt’s February. For those of you who know me well, I should say no more. Every year this month I get blue from the damp and dark, and false promises of spring. This year, my recent milestone birthday is also weighing heavily, especially as I also contemplate the upcoming transition I will be undergoing when my youngest heads off to kindergarten in September. Blah.

As usual, I’ve been dealing with my midwinter mopey-ness by keeping busy. I am firm believer that idle hands do the devil’s work, though in my case that work usually involves writing bad poetry. This winter’s busy-ness has been primarily at my son’s school, where I’m the Sustainability Chair – basically the person who coordinates all green efforts (and thinks of many of them too!).

Last year, our school’s Building Leadership Team rewrote our vision statement to include environmental stewardship. This year, we are in the middle of figuring out how to put that into practice and how to make environmental stewardship meaningful to students. Luckily many of our teachers, staff, students and parents have ideas and energy for this endeavor. Our Green Team (and the number of projects we are undertaking) has mushroomed this year!

However, that also means that I am at the elementary school A LOT of hours each week. The work I am doing with the students feeds my soul . Their earnestness and solution-oriented mentality inspires me. We are saving resources and money with our projects, which pleases me no end. As a side benefit, I get to see how the school and the school district work. I find this endlessly fascinating, though sometimes frustrating.

But I don’t get paid. And I am trying to decide how I feel about that.

Being at school as much as I am, I see firsthand how much work gets done by volunteers. My son’s school would be a much poorer place without the army of moms (mostly) who spend time helping in the classroom, on the playground, in the library, in the office, you name it. I am so grateful that our school community provides this amazing support and supplementation so that our teachers and administrators can spend more time doing their primary job – educating our kids.

But then there are the times we have to fight with the school district for building space, adequate staffing, a real math curriculum, etc. and I find myself feeling so frustrated that education is so chronically and systemically underfunded. Which makes me wonder if we shouldn’t all stop volunteering. I know that seems backwards – but I worry that we are enabling a really dysfunctional system by masking its problems.

I imagine what would happen if we all stopped volunteering en masse. Millions of mommies removing their thumbs from this massively leaking dike simultaneously.  In my little fantasy, lawmakers would scramble to find funding. The general public would take to the streets demanding adequate resources for schools, smaller class sizes, less testing and more creativity. There would be a tremendous crisis, covered on the news with as much fanfare as superstorms and famines. For months, schools would languish, edifices crumbling, tumbleweeds blowing through the deserted playgrounds that could no longer be used because there were no parent volunteers to supervise them. And then, during a special session of Congress, logic would prevail. Education would be given priority over corporate loopholes, and voila! Problem solved.

A total pipedream, I know. And in the short term, our students would be hurt tremendously from a lack of parental support in the schools. But taking the long view, I really do wonder if all of our clever PTA fundraisers, eye-catching bulletin boards, and field-trip-chaperone gigs are propping up a system that needs to collapse so that it can be reinvented. Not for the political drama like we are seeing around sequestration right now, but a true getting back to basics and creating meaningful, workable school systems that educate our children.

Once we are done there, we can step back and reevaluate all of the other places where non-profits are kept on life-support thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers. And perhaps be so bold as to fund the things that actually matter to us.

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3 thoughts on “Pulling the Plug

  1. Your concerns definitely are not unsubstantiated. Your efforts and the efforts of others like you surely do mask the problems with our educational system….to a degree. However, as a parent, you’re obviously acting in the best interest of your children by trying to provide them with the best possible education regardless of the extra cost to yourself. If we look at less affluent communities (I’m assuming your community is upper middle class?) I think the problem becomes more apparent. While there are many other factors to consider as well, one that I think can not be ignored is the army of volunteers you speak of. As we move down the socioeconomic chain I don’t think we find as many volunteers available to help in the day to day activities of schools. There are more families where both parents work and less families that can afford day care allowing a parent to volunteer a few hours a day. Also and maybe more importantly, the quality of volunteers isn’t the same. I’m guessing many of the other volunteers at your school are college educated such as yourself but that just isn’t the case in poorer neighborhoods. Again, there are certainly other factors to consider (cultural, for sure) but I think you make a very valid point, Kim. It is no wonder so many inner-city schools have such abysmal drop-out rates.

    I love your idea of the volunteer strike! I agree that it is a pipedream but it brings a smile to my face just the same. Pull that off and I’ll personally erect a statue to your honor.

    • Thanks for those insights Brian. I think that governments try to address some of the socio-economic inequalities by providing extra funding to school sin lowe income areas. Which makes me think that they understand that communities without strong parent involvement require more resources – for all the reasons that you identify including lack of volunteers and quality of volunteers. And yet even that funding is woefully inadeqaute. I can’t help imagining a school system where no classroom relied on parents for completing basic tasks, and every classroom had sufficient teachers and aides to provide quality, hands-on instruction. With schools being ubiquitous, we would create millions of jobs, and jobs in every community across the nation. It’s such a nice pipe dream, isn’t it 😉

  2. Your quandry reminds me of a job I used to have in a large inner city public library. Our department head kept coming up with new projects, and adding services, in the hopes that we would get additional staff. We depended on the help of a few volunteers because we just didn’t have enough people. This was the kind of place where the air conditioning hardly ever worked ( library staff were forced to work in temperatures that, if we were horses, we would have been leagally required to stop working). In the winter, the snow came in through a hole in the window. We all worked really hard, and loved our jobs, but it just became too much. We never got any additional staff, and eventually we burned out and left (including the department head).
    What I’m trying to say is, you probably won’t get any results by withdrawing your services, but your children’s education will suffer. They are lucky to be in a school where there are so many parents who can and do spend the time and energy to help out. Many children don’t have that luxury. Instead of going on strike, it might be more fruitful to take political action.

    Most places I’ve worked have relied on volunteers, they are the unsung heros of many publicly funded and charitable organizations. We couldn’t manage without them.

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