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?

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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.

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