When Anne McDonald took over as PTO treasurer a few years ago at Lowry Elementary in Denver, Colo., she was handed two shopping bags full of papers. “I spent eight hours getting everything separated and putting it into file folders,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. It totally offended my lawyer sensibilities.”
An attorney by training, McDonald knows the value of good organization. And the chaos of incomplete records and unfiled tax returns, not to mention the lack of a contact list or statistical records from previous budgets and fundraisers, created a huge challenge. “You need a sense of history,” says McDonald, who later served as the PTO president. “Otherwise, you lose all that institutional knowledge.”
Keeping information organized is one trait of a high-functioning PTO leader. But how do you do that when all of your PTO responsibilities vie with multiple other duties in a life that is far from clutter-free? We’ve compiled some tips from parent group leaders to help you start this year right.
Putting everything onto a single calendar can help make sure that nothing gets overlooked. For some people, a daily planner that they carry around works best. Carol Schanzmeyer, a single mom who works full time in addition to doing a year’s stint as the PTO president at Horn Academy in Bellaire, Texas, sits down at the beginning of the year with the school calendar and marks all important dates in her own appointment book. “Then I add all the meetings and deadlines that I know of, and I combine it with my child’s extracurricular activity schedule as well as any work agendas outside of the office or important deadlines at work,” she says. While she admits that the conflicting responsibilities tend to get mixed up, it’s preferable to how she used to track things. “I used to keep separate calendars and couldn’t realize how overbooked my day was,” she says.
Tammy Green prefers a big calendar on the wall at home, right between the kitchen and the way out to the garage. “I’ve tried various kinds of calendars, including electronic PDAs,” she says. “But I find I need to see at a glance what’s happening for the entire week. And I need to see it all the time.” Green, who served as PTO president at Lakeshore Middle School in Stevensville, Mich., also encourages her children to add their own deadlines and activities to the calendar. That teaches them organizational skills and also helps balance the household’s many activities, which include community drama, sports, Boy Scouts, and two academic competitions (Science Olympiad and Odyssey of the Mind), in addition to school and PTO events.
For activities that recur weekly, Julee Grass has developed a separate schedule that she posts at the beginning of each school year on her refrigerator. Grass, who was PTO president at Vassalboro (Maine) Community School, lists all routine events to help her children remember things like bringing their library books back each Monday.
Month-by-Month Preplanning Guide
In addition to remaining alert to what’s around the corner, PTO leaders often need to think several months ahead. Green’s predecessor at Lakeshore bequeathed to her a month-by-month guide detailing what she needed to do for upcoming activities. For example, looking several weeks ahead, the guide reminds the president in July to meet with the principal and to recruit volunteers for help folding newsletters to be distributed when school resumes. “That was the most helpful thing for me,” Green says. “It’s better to go into a volunteer position knowing what’s expected rather than constantly being behind.”
In every PTO president’s home is some space devoted to PTO stuff. It might be a kitchen drawer or a file cabinet. For Anna Marie Jamison, who led the PTO at DuJardin Elementary in Bloomingdale, Ill., it’s shelves.
“I have an area in the laundry room downstairs just for PTO things,” she says. “The shelves are divided into different committees like hot lunch stuff and the PTO bulletin board. I can grab what I need from the shelf.”
Office on Wheels
Since parents often spend a lot of time on the road, having information accessible in your vehicle can be useful, too. Green gets extra copies of the school directory published by the PTO and keeps one in her car. “That way, if something comes up and I need a number, I can get it on the road,” she says.
Jamison keeps not only a phone directory but also bank deposit slips in her car, along with a to do list.
And Renee Scales carts around her whole office. Scales, former president of the PTO at Madison Station Elementary in Madison, Miss., has three storage bins that open into file boxes, one each for the PTO, her job as the director of children’s ministries at a local church, and her outside consulting work. She keeps it all organized by immediately filing mail into the bins, then loads them onto the back seat of her van. “Someone may have a PTO question when I’m not at home,” she says. “It’s my traveling office, and it makes me feel better prepared to keep it with me.”
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Many parent groups take advantage of electronic services to organize information. Anne McDonald’s PTO at Lowry Elementary set up an online group for its board with Yahoo Groups. This created a central location where board members could find all posted documents such as flyers and meeting minutes. It’s easier and more universally accessible than using email distribution lists, McDonald says, since you can log in from any computer. And members like the calendar function, which automatically sends out deadline reminders. Similar services include Google Groups, MSN Groups, and Meet.com.
Horn Academy’s PTO opted to use Box.net, which offers 1 gigabyte of free online storage for documents up to 10 megabytes each. It’s used as a repository for all necessary documentation, with the user name and password turned over to each new PTO president.
The Lowry parent group also uses PTO Manager, a web-based program from PTO Today that offers tools for communicating with members and managing finances. Lowry uses the software to email its full membership once a week. “It was the easiest way for people to get information from us,” says McDonald. “It wasn’t a folder that came home that you had to flip through. Even my husband, who used to have no clue, would get an email at work and would remember better than me what was going on. The biggest thing we heard from parents is that they love those emails, that they felt more on top of things, more aware.”
As a full-time human resources director with two children and lots of community involvement, Grass gets about three emails every five minutes, so an uncluttered inbox is vital. “I respond, delete, or file it to look at it later,” she says. “The inbox is my working document; anything that sits there means it needs immediate attention.” For PTO matters, she creates folders for each upcoming meeting, and everything related to that meeting goes immediately into that folder. Then, at least a week and a half before the meeting, she opens the folder and deals with the information in those messages.
While technology is a great tool, sometimes the simplest techniques work best. At DuJardin Elementary, there’s a PTO drawer in the office. “It’s a common dropping ground for anybody who needs to correspond with the PTO, like teachers bringing in requests or parents turning in receipts,” says Jamison, a mother of four who works part time. “Everybody has access; they just put it in. The committee chairs go in and pull out their stuff. It’s very convenient.”
In her role last year as the PTO president at Smoky Row Elementary in Carmel, Ind., Robin Walsh carried a three-ring, 3-inch PTO binder with her everywhere. “I had to have all that information all the time in front of me,” she says. The binder is passed from president to president, so she tries to remember to write down what the group spent money on, how events changed, and whether something was successful.
At Madison Station Elementary, the handoff of binders from one group of officers to their successors happens at a meeting each May, when old and new PTO board members go through the notebooks together. “The new person is able to sit down with the person who’s finishing up,” says Scales. “Each person has the chance to ask ‘What does this mean? How did you handle this?’”
The tricks people use to remember what they need for the next day vary widely. Green takes a large, heavy-duty plastic bag and travels through her house, dumping in everything she’ll need. “If I see something, it goes in the bag,” says Green, who admits she’s not much for lists. “The brain can only remember so much.”
Grass uses adhesive notes on backpacks and work bags with messages like “Gym class today; don’t forget your sneakers.”
Helen Hossley, who is in her fifth year as PTO president at C.P. Smith Elementary in Burlington, Vt., juggles motherhood with a full-time job and a position as an elected city official. One of her tricks is to tuck notes to herself in the same pocket where she keeps her keys. “It will get lost if I put it on a sticky note,” she says, “but not if it’s in the place where I reach into all the time.”
Sharing the workload, ideally, can help keep PTO responsibilities from overwhelming your life. “When you become a master of delegating, then you have much more time available,” says Hossley. Part of her secret to empowering and retaining other parent volunteers is to help make sure they’re successful. “Communication is the key,” she says. “Ask them ‘What is it that you need? How can we be of assistance?’ Ask them more than once. Lots of times they won’t know what they need until the event is almost upon them, and then they panic. That’s how you lose people. They feel it’s a disaster. That might have been avoided if you’d stepped in sooner.”
Sometimes the best way to get a handle on PTO responsibilities is to block out time away from the demands of the job. That’s an approach that has worked well for Ann Reynolds, who served as PTO president last year at Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Mass. “Every Friday morning, I would not check email or take any phone calls related to the PTO unless something big was going on,” she says. “I had to schedule time away from it.” What did she do with those quiet hours? Laundry and grocery shopping, of course.
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