Thursday, June 16, 2011

Volunteer lessons

The kids still have more than a week of school left, counting today, but I feel as if my part of the school year is over, because my last volunteer commitment ended today. As one of two room parents for Holly’s third grade classroom, I presented the teacher with a scrapbook (ably assembled by the other room parent – a fact that should be obvious for anyone who knows me and knows what the results would look like if I were left in charge of assembling a scrapbook) and a gift card redeemable at a number of Boston restaurants.

Both of the kids had a fabulous year at school. In third and sixth grade, respectively, they learned a lot, earned impressive grades, fostered new and existing interests, bonded with teachers, and matured in their relationships with their friends. So we’ll look back on the 2010/11 school year as an overwhelmingly positive experience, for them and for us adults.

But if I am to be honest, I know I didn’t earn nearly as good grades as the kids did, even though my grades are strictly hypothetical. I took on too many of the wrong kind of roles, and in a way it put a little bit of a damper on the year for me. Not enough of a damper to keep me from being happy overall, but just enough to serve as a nearly constant reminder that I’m not always realistic about where my talents lie.

As the school year began, or even earlier, over the summer, I was already experiencing a nagging anxiety that I’d made poor choices in terms of what I’d agreed to do. Along with room parenting, I was once again coordinating the school library volunteer program. I was also heading publicity for the sixth grade Spaghetti Supper and chairing the Walk-to-School Committee, whose flagship event was a walk-to-school day in which we arrange for crossing guards, “walking car pools,” media taking pictures of walkers, and prizes for all. I’d agreed to be one of three Sunday school teachers rotating duties throughout the year and one of three church “greeters” responsible for welcoming people as they arrived on Sunday mornings. I was also leading an ad hoc committee at church intended to evaluate multiple aspects of our performance as a worship community. Late in the winter, I took on the job of heading up publicity for the spring house tour. And when June came, I was in charge of the faculty/staff appreciation luncheon. That event took place just two days ago.

It wasn’t quite the right mix of jobs for me. Even though most of these efforts came with plenty of gratitude and praise from participants and onlookers, I was grudging about several aspects of what I had to do. I’m not a good Sunday school teacher for a number of reasons. I should have recruited more help for the two publicity committees I served on. The walk-to-school day was successful but culminated with the committee essentially dissolving because we felt that our mission – to get more school-aged children to walk or bike to school, and to ensure they could do so safely -- was unworkable. Tuesday’s faculty/staff luncheon worked out well, but it would have been even better if I hadn’t been quite so hesitant in going after contributions.

So I’m ending the school year feeling a little bit worn out: not resentful of all the things I was asked to do but doubtful of my own judgment. It just seems that I need a better perspective on where my strengths lie.

Of course, some of my volunteer responsibilities worked out well. Although Holly’s teacher ribbed me at times for being such a delegator, always sending out emails to find chaperones for field trips and never actually attending a field trip myself, every classroom need was met. The library program ran smoothly, with volunteers happily covering the shifts they’d asked for. The church evaluation committee delivered a well-received report to the congregation.

But I still think there are lessons to be learned. I still think at some point I need to figure out how to be more honest with myself about what I can reasonably do and which efforts I’d be better off assisting someone else with rather than heading up myself.

And that’s fine, because I’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve on my volunteer skills. Yesterday, I agreed to coordinate next spring’s faculty/staff luncheon; while it’s still all fresh in my mind, I want to think about how I can make it better. I’ll do the library volunteer scheduling again in the upcoming school year, and I’ve expressed my willingness to be a room parent again if needed.

Plus there are always new challenges. Tonight there’s a meeting of the sixth grade parents to discuss volunteer jobs for the class play. I’m trying to think about whether something different would be a good change for me: assisting rather than leading a committee, perhaps, or doing something not as closely aligned with my professional roles as publicity.

Since there’s no end of requests, there’s no end of chances for improvement. This year was a learning experience. Yes, I made some mistakes in what I agreed to take on. But I learned from them. Next year I’ll try to put experience into action.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Wow, you are a super active volunteer! I'm so impressed with the quantity and range of jobs you took on. It's hard to see you feeling bad about your competence or the results of some of your efforts, because most people would take on 1/10 of what you do.

    So first of all, I think someone needs to take you out to dinner to celebrate your energy and commitment to your community and school and church.

    Second of all, I think it's easy to doubt ourselves and to wish things had gone better, especially if we are perfectionists.

    When something doesn't feel good (maybe Sunday school teaching for you?), then maybe it should be discontinued. I go back and forth as to whether we should volunteer in fields that are similar to our own. On the one hand, we have the expertise and the work might go more quickly. On the other, we don't get as much of a chance to expand ourselves and try new things.

    For women who are interested in keeping up their chops while they take a break from work, volunteering can really provide a worthwhile - and flexible - activity to do while still being there for the kids. So I wholeheartedly support it.

    I just wish it had been more satisfying to you. Because our communities thrive because of people like you!

    Wishing you a much-deserved summer break,