Care and Feeding

Do I Really Need to Volunteer at My Children’s School?

I’ve already missed work for conferences and concerts. I can’t bear to chaperone, too.

Someone looking at their watch during an elementary school performance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

I have a first-grader, and I am amazed by the amount of time I have needed to take off work to participate in classroom activities. By November, I already took off one full day of work for a “meet the teacher” day, one half day for a concert, and one half day for a “bring your family to school” day. I also had to rearrange my lunch hour to attend a parent-teacher conference. I just got notice that the class is desperate for parents to go on a field trip. I am running short on time off for the rest of the calendar year. If I had known all of the opportunities to pitch in ahead of time, I feel like I would have been able to pick and choose how I contribute. Instead I get last-minute requests begging me to chaperone.

What is the best way to bring this up with the teacher, if at all? I love helping with my daughter’s class, and I go in to read books or help when I can, but these I can arrange when it works best for my schedule. I have always been open with my daughter about my work schedule, and she knows that I can’t be there for everything. I just can’t handle the last-minute requests from the teacher, and I’m feeling like my “I can’t because of work” isn’t enough. Help!

—Working Mom

Dear Working,

“I can’t because of work” is absolutely, positively enough. Teachers understand the demands of the workplace as well as anyone. I have two children who attend school during the exact hours that I am teaching, and leaving work to attend any school event is incredibly difficult for me. I have friends—lawyers, accountants, programmers, and administrators, for example—who can step away from their desk for a couple of hours to attend a school concert or volunteer in the classroom, but stepping away from 22 fifth-graders is not possible for me. It means using one of my precious personal days or rearranging the schedules of multiple adults in my school to make it work, so I miss many of my children’s events that I wish I could attend.

Teachers understand because we live it, too. We also witness the struggles of parents trying to balance family and work every day.

In fact, it sounds like you’re doing a lot already. I know that parents who have more time and flexibility to volunteer can sometimes make others feel guilty for not doing more, but I promise that the pressure that you are feeling is self-inflicted. Yes, I have moments that I’m desperate for a field trip chaperone, and I may even put out that desperate plea, but I understand when the demands of the workplace make this impossible.

“I wish I could help, but it’s impossible because of my work schedule” and “I’d love to be there, but my boss won’t let me” are perfectly reasonable and understandable responses to the request of a teacher. Please don’t think about it for a second longer. You’re doing great. Pat yourself on the back and let it go.

—Mr. Dicks

My precocious and spirited 6-year-old daughter overheard her teacher describe her to another teacher by saying, “She’s smart but very bossy.” My daughter then reported it back to us, noting that she didn’t like being called bossy, although she did like being called smart.

My reaction is somewhat nuanced, in that my daughter does tend to be overbearing with her peers. She’s a born organizer, very verbal, and likes to tell her friends what games to play and how. We have been working with her on positive leadership, i.e., collaborating rather than dictating, and trying to model teamwork-style behavior to her at home.

All that said, I HATE the word bossy—it’s totally gendered and gets exclusively lobbed pejoratively at girls who don’t behave as “nice” little girls should. We have our parent-teacher conference coming up, and I’m struggling with how to address this with the teacher, especially as this was something overheard by my daughter. It’s still so early in the school year—I don’t want to be at odds with the teacher, but I’m really struggling with this.

—Mom to a Future Sheryl Sandberg

Dear Future Sheryl,

I’m so sorry your daughter overheard her teacher’s comment. You should bring it up in the parent-teacher conference, and the way you said it in your second paragraph is perfect. Start with that, then follow up with your feelings about the word bossy. Tell the teacher what your daughter overheard, and be clear that she was dismayed by it. Hopefully the teacher will say, “You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry,” and will learn something about the issue. That’s the best-case scenario. It’s possible the teacher might get defensive, but she’ll still have learned something—at the very least, to monitor the area before she gossips about kids.

Here’s a positive that might come out of this for your daughter. What you’re teaching her at home is great, but … my kids don’t listen to me. Well, they listen to me, but sometimes not until the fifth (or 87th) time I say something. Hearing parental advice from a nonparent source often penetrates the brainpan much more effectively.

For example, my first job was washing dishes and busing tables in a restaurant when I was about 13. My parents had preached my whole life about the value of a good work ethic. They modeled showing up to their jobs every day and on time. They made my siblings and me do chores. So I was not a stranger to the idea of work. But this particular day, one of the waitstaff was speaking to another server. He knew I was nearby—he even looked at me several times during their conversation—and then he said something that wasn’t about me but that I was very much meant to hear. He said, “Melanie [one of the other busers] is fantastic. She’s such a hard worker.” And I realized when he said it that I just wasn’t. I cut corners. I looked for opportunities to take a break. I had to be told what to do, rather than take any initiative.

And it changed me. I’m not saying it was a particularly empowering way to learn that lesson, but it was effective. Maybe your daughter’s leadership style will improve in a way it hadn’t based on your suggestions.

In any case, good on her for being a boss. May she one day run for president.

—Ms. Scott

My child is in his third year of high school Chinese. The beloved long-serving Chinese teacher retired last year. My child and his classmates are frustrated with the new teacher and say he isn’t good, but I am not sure if it is due to poor teaching or just a natural reaction to changes in teaching emphasis and method. The fact that I know absolutely zero Chinese doesn’t help.

An example: The kids say the new teacher is not showing them how to write characters or giving them new vocabulary. I have no idea if that is standard at this level of the language or not. The teacher also wants the students to use new technology on their personal devices (the school does not use much tech and does not expect them to have devices). My son does not want to put these apps—such as WhatsApp—on his phone, and some students in the class do not have smartphones or tablets.

My son is talking about dropping Chinese next year, which I really don’t want him to do because he would like to study it in college. But he says he is not learning anything, so he might as well drop it or take another language.

How do I evaluate this situation? Should I even try to since he is in high school? Chinese has been a great offering in our school, and I do not want the program to disappear because students are complaining to others about the new teacher. But I also think that maybe the kids aren’t being open-minded about different ways of teaching. My son says he and the other students have given recommendations to the new teacher and have talked about what they don’t like, but I am afraid that the feedback may be of the “Mr. X didn’t do it this way” sort.

—Gàobié to Chinese?

Dear Gàobié,

Since you said that your son is in his third year of high school Chinese, I assume he’s a junior—and at least a quarter of the way into his year, at that. In other words, a mere 18 months or so from embarking upon his college career! As such, I suggest that you try shifting your mindset as you approach this issue. You asked, “How do I evaluate this situation?” What if you asked instead: “What would a resourceful, self-sufficient college student do in this situation?”

When your son goes to college, his academic career will be entirely his own, fully out of your sight and not your business to manage (or at least it should be! I hope we are in agreement on that!). I think your best move here is to work backward from that premise and allow this challenge to serve as a learning opportunity—it’s a valuable chance for him to build his skills and practice the strategies he can use to navigate this and future situations. Talk him through his options. Discuss the pros and cons, both short term and long, offer him some language he could use in his approach, and then let him decide.

So, what are his options? What would a resourceful, self-sufficient college student do in this situation? He could wait awhile and see if the transition eases over time. He might approach the teacher to ask specific questions about the gaps he’s identified in his own learning and request help in addressing them. He might seek out ways to enhance his current experience by forming a study group, finding a tutor, or using additional learning materials. He could share his concerns and request guidance from a third party (in this case, I’d suggest starting with his guidance counselor). Or he might decide it’s not worth the trouble and drop the class. (I know, I know, your teeth are pre-emptively clenching; mine are too. The wasted potential! The lost opportunity that he will almost certainly regret as an adult! But again: his academic career. You can share your perspective, but you can’t make him get it or care.) I think your role is to be his thought partner and his coach, and by all means do check in with him regularly as he works to figure it out, but he should be the one evaluating and taking the lead in handling the situation, whatever “handling” comes to mean for him. It will be, as we say in the classroom, a productive struggle.

(OK, all that said, two caveats on possibly intervening directly. One, if the teacher actually penalizes students for failure to use technology that the school hasn’t provided. It is patently unfair and unacceptable practice for students’ lack of access to affect their grades. Two, if your son’s experience in the class becomes not just frustrating and unproductive but urgent—as in, if his grades start to plummet during what is a fairly critical time period for his transcript and his college aspirations. Other than that, though: productive struggle!)

—Ms. Bauer

I live in a large city, and I’m in the midst of seriously considering elementary schools for my 3-year old. We love our neighborhood, and we don’t want to move. While we are zoned for a high-performing middle and high school, our zoned elementary school is low-performing and exclusively dual-language. We attended an open house at the school earlier this year and the staff explained that 80 percent of instruction is in Spanish and 20 percent is in English. Currently, less than a quarter of students zoned in our neighborhood actually attend school there, and the school buses in large amounts of ESL kids from surrounding areas. However, there is a new principal who seems to be making progress on test scores, and there is a group of parents in our neighborhood trying to increase attendance of zoned children.

Our school district does have a magnet school program, but the magnet elementary schools in our area are highly competitive, and there is no guarantee we would get a spot. We have considered private school, and while we can afford it, we prefer to save for our retirement, especially since we pay high property taxes.

I would love to send our kids to our local school, but I am worried they won’t learn the fundamentals based on the school’s past performance. I am also concerned that 80 percent Spanish-language instruction in elementary school wouldn’t prepare them for 100 percent English instruction in higher grades. (My Spanish is very limited, and my husband doesn’t speak it at all, so I am worried that we wouldn’t be able to assist with their homework, too.) On the other hand, I think it would be great for them to be fluent in Spanish. I would love to hear whether my concerns are valid and what tips you have for parents who are not dual-language to contribute to the success of their kids.

—Spanish as a Second Language

Dear SSL,

I know it’s easy to feel like the choices you make for your child in preschool will set the entire course of your child’s life, but the situation is not as dire as it seems. I see three possible scenarios:

1) You apply to the magnet school, get in, and your child can benefit from the enrichment this program provides.

2) You apply to the magnet school (or don’t) and don’t get in. You send your child to your local elementary school, and your child flourishes. Your child is semibilingual and learns the fundamentals needed to succeed.

3) You apply to the magnet school (or don’t) and don’t get in. You send your child to the local elementary school, but you discover it’s not the right fit. Your child does not speak enough Spanish to keep up with instruction, and you do not feel like the school meets your child’s needs. Since you mention you can afford private school, at this juncture it seems to me you have two options: change schools or supplement your child’s education with after-school tutoring or enrichment programs. Whichever you choose, you can ensure your child learns all that’s necessary to set them up for success in middle school.

Parenting is hard, and I understand you’re trying to make the best choice for your child. However, from where I sit, I don’t see a bad option. Your worst-case scenario is that your child has a less than ideal experience in kindergarten or first grade, so you make a change at that time. That’s not that bad. An added bonus: In the process, your child will be enriched by a unique and unusual educational experience. Maybe you and your husband will be able to learn more Spanish through your child, and maybe this new principal is just the right kind of strong leader who can shape the perfect school for your child.

If not, at the end of the day, your child is 3. You have nothing but time.

—Ms. Sarnell