Working for Free

While summer vacation for many involved with education is about down time, relaxing, and taking it easier than during the school year, that's not my reality. At the moment I am staring down this year's annual appeals, fundraising initiatives, website development, budget revisions, funding grants, an annual auction, meeting planning, banking systems, communication outreach, college support for families, test prep programs, merchandise lines, working with an administration and alumni foundation as well as an executive board.

And I do all this for zero compensation. In other words, I work for free.

My name is Elissa. And I'm a PTA president.

I don't share the above with many people as replies tend to vary from sympathy (I'm so sorry), to derision (what's wrong with you), to dismissal (why don't you get a real job).

Meanwhile, as I juggle far too many balls that affect thousands of people I wonder how anyone can think of this as anything but vital, necessary work.

Countless parents across the country use their experience, professionalism, energy and time to enhance and improve schools for students, administrations, and teachers. So why, in this day and age, is that seen as a negative? Choosing to be of service has little societal net worth. We talk the talk about how important education is but do little to value those who work to support it. It is continually disheartening to watch, and experience, how shoddily volunteers are regarded.

Is it because the vast majority are mothers? Or rather, I should say women. Women are devalued in just about every endeavor so it's no surprise this arena is any different. But, mothers are generally at the bottom of the respect totem poll, especially mothers who don't have another full time career (because motherhood is a full time career in itself). In a society that judges based on materialism, how busy we are, and how much we accomplish, the 24/7 responsibilities of parenting rank low. It's no wonder that serving on a PTA board is so disregarded as valuable or vital.

Part of the issue is that PTAs are transient. Commitments are generally for a school year, maybe two. There's no time to set up systems, adjusting and fine-tuning after seeing practices in action. You get one shot and then it's over. Hindsight rarely exists as new people take over, wanting to reinvent and make their own mark.

Another hurdle is that volunteers come in all shapes, sizes and commitment levels. And, not all sign on with the same intentions or follow through. At a job for pay one generally needs to respond to email, show up at meetings, pay bills on time and follow protocol. In other words, work. But, as one can't be put on probation or fired from a volunteer position, there's not necessarily incentive to do any of the above.

Administrations are often stretched to the limit personnel and/or budget-wise, leaving little time, energy or the inclination to spend training each new group who comes in to head up the volunteer side. Plus, every school generally has their unique way of doing things, which can further add to the lack of continuity.

And yet this past year we helped put books into classrooms, got kids to academic, athletic, and extracurricular competitions across the country, purchased supplies for teachers, supported professional development, covered printing costs for orientations, dinners for volunteers, awards for graduating seniors, sent funds to the college office and the principal's fund, hosted a parent conference with a variety of timely topics in both English and Chinese, organized a successful fundraising drive, instituted a teacher outreach program, updated bylaws, funded and ran a communications system, and threw a teacher appreciation dinner for hundreds.

So perhaps the next time someone mentions they serve on a PTA, instead of scoffing at them for volunteering, try saying thank you for the work they do and the difference they make.