“Why do even good principals make life difficult for PTOs and PTAs?”

That’s a recurring theme in the questions we get here at PTO Today. It only makes sense since we mainly hear from PTO and PTA leaders.

The funny thing is that I imagine at the National Association of Elementary School Principals they get a very different question from their members: “Why does my PTO try to make my life so difficult?”

As with so many things, the bad guy in the PTO-principal relationship really depends on who you’re asking. Parent groups get annoyed when the principal seems to be an obstructionist of good ideas, and principals get frustrated when their parent groups want every change to happen yesterday or when their parent groups don’t remember the 178 other priorities—like faculty and test scores and swine flu and the curriculum and leaky faucets—that a principal also must face.

Yes, we all love those administrators who make parent group leaders’ lives easy and rewarding. The remaining 99.9 percent of us are working with very human principals who generally understand that parent involvement is good and who say all the right things at Open House but who also sometimes get tired and even worried about letting parents in too much. If you propose change on the wrong day or in the wrong way, they’ll subtly put up roadblocks or make your life difficult. That’s just reality.

Why do otherwise good principals do this? Fear. Fear of change. Fear of loss of control. Fear of the increased work and attention that comes with managing even more people and processes.

Change means more time and more meetings and more winning over skeptics. Change also means counting on you and your fellow leaders to follow through. Most principals have lived through grand plans that weren’t carried out. That can be worse than not trying at all.

And remember that principals also tend to like order and control. You’ve seen the cafeteria rules, right? And think about which teachers go on to become principals—it’s not the anything-goes history teacher reliving the ’60s, it’s usually the teacher who excelled at keeping an orderly classroom and getting the tests graded on time. Your plan to bring volunteers into every classroom is radical to a person who longs for order.

So what can we do as parent group leaders? The only real answer if you want change is to acknowledge and respect those fears (we wouldn’t want a principal who let just anything go, right?) and to make sure your proposals and your follow-through are thought out comprehensively and run professionally.

If you’re proposing a new PTO website, how can you put some systems in place so the principal knows that parent education and communication will be the result and the principal doesn’t have to worry about teachers getting criticized in a public forum? If you’re proposing having parent volunteers in the classroom, have you considered background checks and training and privacy rules—all things that the principal would have to worry about on her own?

Principals will hardly ever say “I just don’t want to put in the time to work on this with you,” but that is often a real reason. Does your proposal for change include all the ways you’ll make sure it isn’t a huge burden (perceived or real) to faculty and administrators? Have you identified and presented realistic solutions for all the ways the principal could see your plan as risky?

Yes, you might say that the principal is paid to take on those headaches and you’re just volunteers. That’s true, but it certainly won’t help you get change enacted. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; in the same way, you partner much more effectively with principals by walking in their shoes a bit rather than demanding they do things your way just because you’re the parents.