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Volunteering at Schools: Cliques happen

Hard to believe, but it has almost been ten years since my first experience volunteering at school.  We were planning for a (pre-)school auction, and we had a required number of volunteer hours to fulfill.  I figured: Might as well get them all done with an auction activity.

Our leader for the auction that year - I will never forget her.  She was a mama to two and she was amazingly gifted at being welcoming, empowering.  She was a strong leader without being overly directing or bossy.  She delegated well and elegantly.  I crawled out my shell and took on a big role organizing all the "easel parties", the sign-up events where attendeeds would typically pay-per-person to participate.  It was a great first experience with a school auction, a great first experience with volunteering at school.

The following year, we had a different leader for the big event.  She was domineering.  She had a vision, and it felt like no one else's ideas could compare to hers.  I tried to volunteer for the same job, but all my products and ideas were met with criticism and were denied.  I cringed, but I got the job done.  I felt like my efforts were all for nothing, but at least I fulfilled those doggone required volunteer hours.

Fast forward almost a decade and several schools later, many, many volunteer hours (most of them, not required) later, I found myself co-leading an art project at my daughter's school, where she was a new student that year.  I had read the instructions on how to present the project.  I had prepared our art materials.  I offered to my two other co-leaders that I would take the lead for the first section.  The presentation divided easily into three portions we could each take turns in presenting, I suggested.

When I started off, I could hear one of the other parents say, under her breath, "Oh.  We're doing it like THAT?"  She sounded sarcastic, either mocking or critizing my approach.  I think I stuttered, but I continued on.  I had no idea why it seemed like I was doing it wrong.  As I prodded through the presentation, trying to engage the kids in a bit of discussion as we went along, I could not stop thinking of my two co-leaders, how I felt them whispering about me, my style, my errors, my flaws in presentation, my inability to connect with the kids.  

Was it me?  Did I have it all wrong?  Or, was it that "cliques happen"?  Even if we are working toward a common cause?  

I have to believe that my time is valued when I offer it to our classroom.  I have to believe that I am open to constructive criticism and that I am welcoming of new ideas.  My co-leads that day never did approach me with how I might have erred in the lesson, so I continue to contribute my time toward leading art projects every month.  The other parent that had initiated that snarky comment (well, it sounded snarky to me) hasn't volunteered alongside me in a couple of months now, and I honestly feel more at ease without her.  Our teacher hasn't corrected me or discussed a way that I might be doing this all wrong.  So, I just keep at it, even though I recall that moment of disdain, and I feel it gnawing at me each time I prepare for a project.

Are we not too old for this interaction?  Do we have time for riffs like this?  Have you experienced this too?


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My school used to have volunteer cliques, or at least it felt that way to me as the new person... in that when something needed to be done, they would simply ask their buddy... then there'd be big thank you's for the work that they'd done while the rest of us hadn't known there was even a need. Even better, they'd then say that they were the only ones who ever did these jobs for the school.
This year that changed, as there began to be too much work for them, so they had to open it up a bit more.

Regarding the original post, why not just turn around and ask, "Was there a question?" Rather than let your imagination get carried away thinking she's judging you, perhaps *she* misunderstood how the project was going to be done and needed more clarification. I try not to assume, it's better for my mental health ;)

You didn't do anything wrong, but this IS how volunteering in schools (and most workplaces for that matter) function. Should we have long outgrown all this petty BS? Of course, is it always like that? Yes.

I always found that I'd volunteer more if it weren't so heavily controlled by a few people, turning it into high school all over again. I even remember kinda butting heads with one other mom, who I had just met over how to arrange cups and plates.

I totally understand how you feel. These types of situations are why are opt for volunteering in the classroom or during field trips even though it is tough to take time off work. I would much rather do what the teacher tells me to than risk being pushed around by some parent who is fulfilling her unmet need of feeling important. Most volunteering parents are probably great, but who can guaratee I won't come across a not so great one?

"why I opt for" not "why are opt for"

anon is telling my story. I stopped volunteering with parents in middle school because I thought I was really going to throttle another mom, who went out of her way to make moms who weren't in feel uncomfortable, so I went the field trip and procuring auction items route going forward. I volunteered for one last event during senior year last year and found the same "queen bee" setup. The thing that always amazed me about volunteering is that the same type moms always ran stuff whether it was a Title I school, a magnet, parochial. Their demographics may have been different but it was pretty much always "in crowd" and out crowd. It is kind of amazing. So yes, I think cliques live on for parent volunteers.

At our old school, I felt like there were volunteer cliques. I stopped volunteering. At our new school, I have taken a different approach and I like it much better. I spend the majority of my volunteer time in the classrooms. I help out the specials teachers (particularly art), where other parents aren't generally aware there is a need (Our art teacher is especially thankful that she gets 5-10 extra minutes of instruction with the kids since I am there to set up, clean up and help keep the kids moving through their projects.)

It seems like there are two kinds of volunteers - those who are making school volunteer efforts their social life and crave the attention for that effort, and those who truly just want to be there for the kids.

I am one of the latter, but I am nice to the former. I say yes when they are working on something I'd like to help with, and I say sorry but I can't when they ask for help with something I just don't see as worth the investment of my time. The important part is that it's fun for you, and for your child.

I really don't want to start something here between the working and non-working moms. This post does remind me though... When I was a kid, I always wished my mom would be at school, on the field trips, helping with reading group, organizing class parties, etc. She was working like crazy and simply couldn't take that time. While I recognize now that putting food on the table is more important than volunteering, I have always felt that as long as I could be that "helper" mom, I would be. I am fortunate that while I am a working mom, I am a work-from-home consultant who can adjust my work schedule to the hours that work for me. Just last week, while getting ready for a field trip, I heard a couple of kids say, "I wish my mom could be here..." and it made me remember how I felt as a kid, and strengthen my resolve to create a different experience for my own kids. That's why being present in the classroom is very important to me. Blowing up balloons for the carnival... not so much.

Don't concern yourself with the cliques. You are there for your kids first and foremost. If you make friends in the process, that's a bonus.

I'm a current PTA president and I've done a lot of volunteering over the years.

I think my perspective is a little different in that I've been in numerous conversations and meetings that were about how to expand the pool of volunteers so we weren't always depending on the same set of people to run events. We think that's a problem, and we work on different channels of communication, trying to present a wide variety of ways to volunteer, etc. But we aren't always successful and I don't fully understand why.

Reading these comments, I guess I should try to figure out if maybe the PTA is giving off a clique-vibe. But I'm not sure I'm socially savvy enough to recognize that.

When I was new at our school I jumped right in. Over time i have backed way off due to just feeling like an outsider. The PTA parents and parents in the know just aren't very warm and inclusive, even at our funky progressive school. They will be polite but there are just walls that the rest of us can't break through. I used to think it was just me but now I realize there are lots of us there. As above, I limit my involvement to field trips and classroom help. And I try to be extra welcoming to others!

J, if you are from our school, I think you are ok! I have not gotten that feeling too much, but sometimes it's there when I have to rush off to work after dropping of my daughter and I see the other parents who are able to stick around the school and have gotten to know each other so well over the years over volunteering, and I just yearn to blow of work and stay there with them, just to feel the feeling of community. It's not them, it's me. I want to feel wanted, and I want to be a part of something bigger than myself when it comes to the school. So I think it is more of a jealousy thing for me rather than feeling excluded. The (mostly moms) at our school have been so welcoming and inclusive. I hope it stays that way as we move through the years and toward middle school.

@J, I'm sorry to say that chances are your school PTA IS clique-ish. I've attended enough meetings to say that even though I support their goals, I can't involve myself because I find myself being shut out (and I'm a very friendly person).

I've experienced this as a work outside the home, SAH and WAH parent. Here and there are a few friendly people, but overall, it's kinda snobby. On the plus side, you CAN sometimes still find opportunities to volunteer through other channels. I volunteered in the classroom and did Walk and Bike.

The most egregious version of this cliqueishness was at my daughter's elementary school. Two moms lived next door, their kids were BFFs and they were BFFs. They made it VERRRRRRRRYYYY clear that no one else need apply (and yes, my efforts early on extended to invites for their children and themselves to non-school parties we threw. After a few rebuffings, we got the message. And no, I wasn't the only person who felt it). Guess who went on to hold leadership roles in the PTA? Not a lot of fun to be around THAT!

Oh also, this isn't exclusive to elementary, middle or high schools. I saw a lot of it when my daughter took ballet. My husband referred to them as the "Cookie cutter preppy moms".

Though certainly, that didn't include everyone. Some parents were really friendly. Others were really snobby.

Due to complicated custody arrangements, my stepson started school here in 5th grade. I wanted to do the right thing and help out, but had some unpleasant experiences with other "cliquey" parents, so I laid low for awhile. Fast forward to 7th grade, and I found my own volunteer project running the ski bus. For me it works great because I'm essentially autonomous (though I've had some great help from parent chaperones) and it's a program that wouldn't have existed without my help. I've always done volunteer work--heck, I was a Peace Corps volunteer--so I want to contribute to the school, but it can be hard to find a meaningful way to be a part of things, a project that brings together both the right people and the right skill set.

I think there is something that happens in groups where Queen Bees manage to take up too much of any observer's headspace while the vast majority of people in the group end up forgotten/unnoticed. As a result, many feel like the whole group of volunteers is a clique when there's really only a maximum of 3 or 4 who fit that category and there's still plenty of people to make friends with/enjoy the time with if you deliberately focus on the periphery instead of the center of the circle.

I just have to write and say, thank you for being one of the moms who drops off her kids and goes to work. I work from home, and my daughter is young enough to not quite understand that typing on a computer at home is work. She also sometimes parrots a line about moms staying home, and it is so extremely valuable to be able to list kids in her class and say "Joe's mom works at an office; Kate's mom works at a hospital; Sarah's mom works at a store."

I know that working mothers have all sorts of motivations and being a role model for my daughter isn't really on anyone's list, but thank you anyway.

@Eve - maybe yes, maybe no. But that requires a fair amount of energy that couuld be directed elsewhere. And still doesn't address the issue, just circumvents it.

J, thanks for the reframe!

I just remember trying to help at my sons first school and making a comment to one of the higher up PTA members about the drama going on, saying something about it feeling like high school... her response, "life is like high school."

No thank you, not for me!

Happy to be at a different school now where there seems to be a ton of parent support and not a lot of drama.

‎"Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot....With a network, what you get at the beginning is all you ever get....The pathological state which eventually develops out of these constant repetitions of thin human contact is a feeling that your "friends" and "colleagues" don't really care about you beyond what you can do for them..." ~John Taylor Gatto

I just read Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. It had a chapter on PTA cliques and may interest people who are still reading this post.

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