The U.S. School System: Welcome to the Dark Side

Hello, yellow bus.

If you’re new to the American school system, you’ll quickly discover that it’s not only the syllabus that is completely different from the British system. Many schools here “encourage” parental involvement in the form of volunteering, so expect to be hit with a “sign-up sheet” as soon as you enroll your children. As a newbie parent, volunteering is a great way to meet other parents, some of whom will become lifelong friends.

Whether they’re private or state-run, most American schools rely heavily on support from the parent body and there is a glittering array of activities to tempt you:

The PTA/PTOParent-Teacher Association/Organization.  Since a lot of these positions are elected, you might just dodge this bullet at least until people get to know you. Be warned that if someone asks you to consider a position as soon as you arrive, it could well be a role that only an unsuspecting new parent would touch. These people will stop at nothing to fill all PTA spots. The PTA can be a bit of a lions’ den; you will inevitably hear stories of pitched battles or lionized members past and present, and many of these organizations make the United Nations look like a tight-knit Brownie pack.

Room parent – the lynchpin of the classroom, liaison between teacher and parents. You will primarily have the thankless task of roping in other parents for classroom duties, accommodating their ever-changing schedules and filling in when they inevitably drop out at the last minute. It’s a lonely job. Parents slink off around corners when they see you approaching, and strangely, no one ever answers your e-mails or phone calls. Avoid this job unless you have unlimited amounts of time, a very flexible schedule and skin like a rhino.

Snack mom/dad – this can either involve supplying snacks for one day, or organizing the entire snack schedule. (American schools are big on snacks). Fortunately, to comply with the list of “acceptable snacks” and to accommodate all allergies, the only possible snacks are usually carrots and apples. If you are anointed head snack mom/dad, responsible for the entire snack schedule, see the notes on “room parent” above.

Chaperoning – accompanying the class on field trips. At least on these occasions, the teacher remains in charge, but for those of us not used to dealing with hordes of children for hours at a time, this is an exhausting one. If your own children test your patience and have you watching the clock for bedtime, chaperoning is not your calling.

Classroom volunteering – general dogsbody. In my time I have wiped bottoms, swept up classrooms, washed dishes, read for hours, listened to children read for hours, applied make-up for school productions and baked things I didn’t even recognize. Some duties are great fun and some, not so much. Don’t over-sell yourself when volunteering here as you’ll end up being crowned “the one who knows what’s going on”, otherwise known as “the one who ends up doing all the work.”

Special Events – if you hear this phrase, run like the wind, as it’s a euphemism for fund-raising. Events can range from small bake sales to full-on dinners/balls that cater for thousands and take a year to plan. These, in turn, involve large committees of Type A parents, all bent on personal glory and incapable of taking direction.

On the positive side, little kids are usually thrilled to have their parent in school and tend to behave surprisingly well under the auspices of another adult, i.e. the teacher. (By the way, if you see a teacher tactic that works particularly well with your child or an unruly classmate, discreet note taking is advised.) With middle and high school kids (ages 11-18), volunteering will probably be less classroom-based and more “back office”, such as Board membership, or fund-raising. This is just as well as the mere thought of seeing you in the hallways gives teens and tweens the heebie-jeebies, no matter how stylin’ you think you are.

What was your transition like to the American school system?

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • dw

    “Welcome to the dark side” — WTF?

    While the American school system has its negatives (most of which aren’t touched upon here), at least in the US it isn’t automatic, as it is in the UK, that any parents with enough money will send their children to private schools.

    • MacIntyre

      Actually, the author’s kids go to a private school in the US, which typically do require a lot more parent volunteering than US public schools do.

      • dw

        OK. Not sure what that has to do with my comment.

    • Mrs Baum

      I’m not sure it’s automatic in the UK at all – though maybe among very rich people. We send our son to a private school (after he was allowed to do little or no work at the state school), but only one of my friends does likewise, and quite a few of my friends have more money than we do! We scrimp and save to do so though, and it’s just as well we only have the one child.

      I liked the article – and I’m glad volunteering is very much optional at my son’s school!

  • justme

    @dw – I wondered what the heck too with the “Welcome to the Dark Side” line. I guess Toni Hargis doesn’t like volunteering at school?

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com SmittenbyBritain

      That was meant to be tongue n’ cheek – sarcastic.

      • Not So Thin-Skinned Herself

        I got that, Toni… Kinda surprised others didn’t. Erma Bombeck, for one, would have merrily endorsed your tongue-in-cheek perspective. I guess you need “skin like a rhino” for this gig, too.

      • MacIntyre

        I believe justme’s comment was also.

      • dw

        Then it’s the kind of mindless soul-destroying “sarcasm” I thought I’d left behind in Britain.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hiltonbrit Sue Hilton

    As a classroom/school volunteer/general dogsbody for the last 10 years, (less, as my kids have grown) there’s a lot of truth here; but the “dark side” it’s not! Yes, it can be hard work – I am currently a “team mom” which is basically a full time job, but I’ve had tons of fun too, with kids and parents!

  • kathy

    wow, that is ALOT of volunteering… at my primary school, we only had a few people helping who were parents… and I’m not even sure if they were all volunteers – the local reverend who did an afterschool club and some assemblies, and a lovely woman running breakfast club… that’s all I can really think of…

    mind you, it was a tiny village school – but I don’t remember many volunteers in my first primary school either, which was in the town and pretty big.
    there would be maybe one or two parents volunteering if no teachers were left available for trips, e.g. going to the theatre

  • Redsonja1313

    @DW uhhhh not sure where you live but that is true in US our Public Education system blows. My parents didn’t have money and scraped to put my in private school so I’d have a better education.

    • dw

      Sure — it “blows” in many places in the US. In the UK, it “blows” pretty much everywhere, except for the fake “faith” schools.

  • JH

    Well I have no knowledge about the American system but if only 10 percent is true then Toni, howay lass time Ye were gannin doon the travel agent an gettin yersel back hyem.

    It’s nee gud tryin to get yanks te get irony an sarcasm hinney, they divvent kna nowt aboot such mattas.

    Nice article though, well done !

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com SmittenbyBritain

      Where’s the LIKE button for that comment?

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com SmittenbyBritain

    I shudder to think how teachers and schools would survive without parent volunteers. I did a little volunteering in the classroom – as much as my son would allow. Thankfully that is as far as it went because I had no interest in getting mixed up in the cattiness between helicopter moms. Some parents are too involved in their child’s school life. I thought it was unfair when a child got special treatment because his or her parent was a volunteer and “knew the right people.” What if we all went to the office and complained when our child got a teacher we didn’t like? I know a parent who monitored her child’s every assignment and grade, then complained to the teacher each time he gave her child a grade she didn’t agree with. No wonder teachers are exhausted!

  • http://www.facebook.com/miriam.harding Miriam Harding

    I think you are missing the whole point of the article. Schooling is totally different to the UK and although there are some volunteers, it is minimal to what you see in North America. Interference from parents is frowned upon and although parents are expected and encouraged to take an interest in their child’s education, ultimately the buck stops with the teacher.

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com SmittenbyBritain

    Toni, maybe your next article should explain the British sense of humour.

  • http://www.londoncitymum.com London City Mum

    PMSL. That is all.
    (And great article – love JH’s comment)

  • http://twitter.com/emmakaufmann emmakaufmann

    I guess I have gotten lucky and cherry picked my volunteer jobs at my daughters’ elementary school. There is an amazing art teacher there and together we created all the backdrops for the theatre plays – it was a blast. I also volunteered as an art helper and on as many fieldtrips as possible apart from the one that involved wading waist deep in freezing water to ‘study the ecology of water.’ I have done some volunteering that was boring, going over spelling words with kids in the class etc but I must say it made me feel quite personally fulfilled that I was doign something worthwhile (for real!)

  • http://twitter.com/BombayMagicInc Helene Lecuyer

    I wish I had read your post the first year, it took me 4 years to understand what the PTA was about and I ended up … room parents…

  • http://twitter.com/LavinaLavina Lavina Lavina

    So does this mean in Britain the parents do not get involved in school things at all. I find that hard to belive.

  • bohemond

    The Dark Side is the *only* side to US public schools. Unless there’s a charter school in your district, be prepared to take the financial hit and send your children private; it’s borderline child abuse to send them to the public Penitentiary Prep.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/IG4L6GEQBG4KJGDFNRI5CKP4B4 John

    The reality is that there isn’t enough parental “influence”. Involvement is another thing. Our education system stinks because it praises academics far too much. Get real. How many parents and students are going to flock to an institution that is hell bent on filling minds with algebra but no common sense or life skills? I raise my kids to get a real honest job. Not a corporate one. A job that allows them to keep the stress low, get married, and raise kids. I have no interest in triple figure jobs for assholes or a PhD in physics. Save those for the foreigners. Public school has become a broken mess. And it explains why there are millions of parents homeschooling now. This includes me.

  • Daemon

    I live in Michigan and there is minimal involvement with parents and it is definately not a regular thing. Once or twice a year a parent may supply their elementary child’s class of 20-30 with fruit snacks or granola bars and if the parent wants they can go on a field trip and chaparone a few children. The PTA is always optional and is usually for the stuck up mothers who want to show off. All these things might I add are optional especially if you are a low income family. This is public schools (as in free) though which if you find the right school can be much more rewarding then private schools for your child. Also if you don’t know elementary refers to ages approximately 4-11. Also there is almost no volenteering done in high school and middle schools.
    Just a little bit of clarifying that I thought I should do.