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Why Don’t Dads Volunteer at School?

Editor’s Note: Jessica Santina was recently a guest on the Reno Dads Podcast talking about this topic. Hear more from her — and from Reno Dad Jonathan Salkoff — here

where are the dad volunteers

It was the end of summer last year, with one week left before the back-to-school barbecue at my daughter’s school. As a member of the Parent Faculty Association (PFA) board, I was troubled by the low number of volunteers signed up to help. This event is one of our biggest. Held the Thursday before the first day of school, it’s a massive effort of burger-and-dog grilling, T-shirt selling, PFA-membership recruiting, and new-teacher meeting. Without volunteers to cook and sell the food, set up tables, and attend to the thousand little jobs that come up, it doesn’t work. A week before the barbecue, we had four volunteers signed up. All women.

“Let’s send out an email to the dads for grills,” our new president said. And the message she crafted read something like, “Hey dads and dudes! Are you a grill master? We need you!”

“Ugh, what a stereotype,” I groaned to myself.

I started thinking about all the men who had helped at the barbecues in the past. Where were they? Then I realized: All husbands of the most active female volunteers. All roped in without ever signing up. All relegated to running the grills.

“I’m sorry, but can women not run grills?” I posed to the board. After all, I’m the master griller at our house. “And don’t we need both genders of volunteers for all positions? Just seems like such a cliché to me.”

“Well, we have to meet people where they are,” the president shot back. “That’s how things are. Men won’t sign up unless their wives bring them, and usually all they want to do is grill.”

Really? It was a truth I had to acknowledge, though I hated it and it made no sense to me. As a parent who works from home, I’m fortunate to be able to walk with my daughter to school each morning and pick her up when school ends at 3 o’clock. I had seen with my own two eyes plenty of dads dropping off and picking up kids, socializing with each other, walking with their kids in the middle of the day. These are clearly fathers who are involved in their children’s lives on a regular basis. Many coach their soccer or basketball teams. But I’d never seen any of those dads sign up, on their own, to volunteer at school events — just the few whose wives badgered them into grilling burgers on the day of the barbecue.

When I thought more about it, I realized I’d also never seen them volunteering in the school either. I’ve been an avid biweekly volunteer in the classroom for the last five years, and except for one grandpa two years ago, I’ve ever personally seen any dads volunteering during school hours, and aside from my husband and maybe one or two other dads, none had served as field trip chaperones either.

And in all of my three years of struggling to recruit new board members to the PFA (a sad reality that speaks to a decline of volunteerism in general), not a single dad had stepped up or even so much as expressed interest.

I want to know why. I know many involved dads who can be found avidly coaching their kids’ sports teams, but why no participation in school?

There seems to be a long-held joke told by many of the dads I know: “She’s the boss; she makes the schedule. She just tells me where to be and I show up.”

It’s a joke perpetuated even by the moms themselves, a favorite of sitcom writers. The moms roll their eyes as if to say, “Oh well. Whattaya gonna do?”

In my mind, that’s the same thinking that leads parents to call dads “babysitters,” a comment that makes me want to throw up. But that’s another post.

I’ve heard dads comment that the moms take the daughters to dance classes because “that’s their girl thing,” something to which only females belong. I’ve heard them say, “She handles all that school stuff.”

There seems to be almost no expectation or feeling of obligation among dads to volunteer at school, whereas moms with the same work schedules and obligations, by and large, seem to feel that obligation innately and are way more likely to participate — to bake cookies for Teacher Appreciation Week, to volunteer for a field trip, to help out in the classroom, or to join the PFA.

Why, in a time when the need for positive male role models has never been more acute, when we know more than ever before about the power of a dad’s involvement and of families’ participation in school for improving student outcomes, and in a time when gender roles are more fluid than ever before, can we not get dads on board to volunteer at school?

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, though I doubt by much. Maybe the key is better male-targeted marketing, which isn’t my strength. Maybe we need to post an active dad outside the school to personally invite them.

Dads, I ask you: What would work? I’ll try it. Please share.

Consider this your engraved invitation. Like employers in STEM fields struggling to attract more women to positions typically filled by men — positions that these employers know could benefit from female perspectives and unique attributes — our community’s schools badly need what you dads have to offer, the skills and ideas and perspectives that could make a big difference for your kids.

And not just dads but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and guardians, of all genders. It is not, and should not be, the sole domain of moms.

“Dads and dudes,” look, I love that you’re out there coaching your kids’ teams, and we can certainly use any grilling prowess you want to loan us. But when summer winds up and you’re making decisions about where to volunteer your time and talents, I hope school will make the cut.

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

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