Through formal election or friendly coercion, you’re now president of your school’s PTO or PTA. Congratulations, and thank you for taking on this important challenge. Even if you have never led a volunteer group before and have little PTO or PTA experience, don’t panic. You can be a successful president, and many parent group leaders across the country are in the same situation. These tips will help you get off on the right foot.
Recognize That You Are a Leader
Regardless of whether you feel any different, your role within the school has changed. You are now the President of the PTO, with a capital P. Other parents will be looking to you for answers, advice, guidance, and support. That can be a little daunting, especially if this is new territory for you. Talk to friends who have been in similar positions, whether in a PTO or in other volunteer groups. You’ll find that good leaders are confident but not dictatorial. They listen to and encourage others. Good leaders take risks and take responsibility. Good leaders recognize their own weaknesses and welcome the support of others whose skills complement their own. They celebrate success with everyone who deserves recognition. Good leaders build teams, not empires.
Delegate the Work
You are probably excited about the year ahead. You may have new events you want the PTO to sponsor, new ideas on how to improve past PTO activities, and thoughts on enhancing parent involvement in your school. What better way to ensure that these ideas are successful than to do all the work yourself? But honestly, that’s not realistic or even appropriate. Delegating responsibility is one of the most important and often one of the hardest parts of being a PTO president.
You have to accept some risk when you hand responsibility to another person. But no single PTO member, no matter how enthusiastic she is, can run a successful PTO on her own. Delegating keeps you from being overwhelmed. It engages other eager parents in the good work of your PTO. And it demonstrates that your PTO is welcoming to all who want to be involved. Delegating helps you build a team of like-minded PTOers, which ultimately makes the PTO stronger for your school, your students, and your families.
Be Passionate About Communication
The PTO can’t increase parent involvement or enhance the school’s educational environment if no one knows what the group is about. Don’t assume everyone in your school understands the PTO. Parents of very young children may be completely new to the PTO concept. Others may never have paid much attention to it in the past. Teachers may have been left out of the PTO loop. But all these people may have been interested in participating more fully if they only knew what the PTO was up to. Your PTO’s executive board members, under your leadership, should be the group’s best cheerleaders. Proclaim widely and loudly the plans, opportunities, ideas, and gratitude of the PTO. Use traditional means like paper flyers and new tools like social media. Make it your team’s goal to eliminate the response “I never heard about that.”
Listen to Others
It’s easy to get caught up in the urgency and details of PTO work, but one of the most important skills you’ll use as a PTO president is to listen. Listen to the experience and history of your PTO, even if that means reading through old notebooks or the meeting minutes. Listen to the school principal to find out her perspective on and aspirations for the group. Listen to other parents, not just your friends, to find out how they feel about the PTO. Listen to the school staff, not just your own child’s teacher, for ideas on how the PTO might better support the educational environment. Listen to parent group members and leaders at other schools for best practices, great ideas, and pitfalls to avoid. Yes, at some point very soon you need to go into action, but listening will always be an essential skill while you are PTO president.
Lead the PTO According to Its Mission
You may be the top gun now, but you are still beholden to the mission of the PTO. It’s not appropriate for a PTO president to simply charge ahead with defining the group based on her own personal motivations. The PTO exists as an entity bigger than its individual leaders, by way of its mission statement. The job of the president is to put that mission into action. Usually, you can find the group’s mission statement at the beginning of the bylaws. It might be called “purpose” or “duties”; regardless of the label, the words should spell out the PTO’s priorities and parameters.
A mission statement won’t tell you how often to host Family Reading Night, but it will tell you that parent involvement is a goal of the PTO. The mission statement won’t list all the classrooms in your building, but it will define your own school as the focus of the PTO’s work. New ideas should be evaluated in light of the mission so that your group stays on its intended path. If you can’t find your PTO’s bylaws or if the bylaws neglect to include a mission statement, make it one of your goals this year to develop a mission statement—and live by it.
Partner With the Principal
No matter how independent or formally organized your PTO is, you need to work with and alongside the school principal. The most effective PTOs are those that develop a partnership with the principal. You need the principal’s support, indeed, but your group should not be the principal’s personal fundraising program or volunteer pool. There should be a healthy balance and mutual respect between PTO and principal. But above all, recognize that the principal is the CEO of the school. She is ultimately responsible for the success of her students.
No matter how valuable you believe your PTO is, the principal controls the PTO’s access to the campus, the school, the classrooms, and the students. You have to respect the principal’s word because you won’t get very far if your PTO is alienated from the principal. However, acknowledge that your PTO can and should ultimately control its own destiny. Parents want to have a say in the operation of the group, the events it sponsors, the way it spends its funds. You are, after all, depending on parents to provide the volunteer labor and financial resources to make the group tick.
Your best strategy is to approach the principal as a colleague, with the common mission of improving the school. Listen, discuss, share, and come to an agreement about the role and goals of the PTO. Your school will benefit, your PTO members will appreciate being part of a confident organization, and your principal will have a trusted ally and powerful resource at her side.
Learn How To Run a Good Meeting
One of the most basic activities of a PTO is the business meeting. Nearly every PTO has some sort of formal gathering of its members on a regular basis. The meeting is the place where important decisions are made, results are reported, successes are celebrated, and needs are articulated. With all that going on, it’s easy to let the meeting take on a life of its own. Anyone who has started doodling while a discussion drones on knows the dangers of poor meeting management. You can easily find parents who avoid all forms of PTO activity because they fear being trapped in an unproductive meeting.
As president, you’ll run most of the PTO meetings. Be sure you are equipped to do it well. It’s not hard to run a good meeting, even if you’ve never done it before. The secrets are pretty standard: Be prepared, communicate well, stay on task, and use common meeting management practices such as an agenda. A good agenda, distributed to all participants, lays out the path for the meeting. It shows the topics to be discussed, who is planning to talk, and what defines the “end” of the meeting. Other techniques for good meeting management include the taking of minutes, sign-in sheets and name tags, and the use of basic Robert’s Rules of Order. Make your meeting useful, fun, and relaxed but well-organized, and your members will come back month after month.
Get Smart About Your PTO’s Financial Situation
Your PTO executive board should include a treasurer. It’s her job to oversee all the day-to-day details of the PTO’s financial accounting system. But as president, you need to be part of the financial team, too. For example, you should understand the monthly treasurer’s report. You should expect to review the bank statement each month. You should know what tool your treasurer uses to document the financial activity of your PTO. You should know how much money your PTO has on hand and where it is located. You should enforce basic financial controls like making sure the bank statement is reviewed by more than one person each month. You should help set the annual budget.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the treasurer; you must work as a team. The treasurer provides information to the group, such as the net profit of the recent fundraiser, so that the executive board (led by you!) can make important decisions for the PTO such as whether or not you can afford to sponsor Hands-on Science Night. No one works in isolation. So even if you don’t consider yourself a “numbers person,” or your treasurer is a veteran and you are new to the board, recognize that you have a responsibility to understand how your PTO’s money is managed. It’s not personal.
Learn Your Way Around the School
In your new role as PTO president, you will need access to school resources that are unavailable to the typical parent. Find out the protocol for using the school’s photocopier. Ask whether there is on-campus storage or a dedicated work space available to the PTO. Find out whether the PTO can piggyback onto the school’s newsletters, email broadcasts, and website. Determine the best way to distribute information to classrooms, students, and parents.
The principal can answer many of these questions, and you should always ask her first. But on a day-to-day basis, the real keepers of the keys are the support staff at the school. Introduce yourself to the school secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, school nurse, media consultant, art teacher, and others who may be affected by the presence of an active PTO. The principal and teachers are on the front line of contact with the parents. Much of what your PTO does will directly affect them. But when it’s 6:45 p.m. and you need 100 photocopies of the bingo cards, access to the locked paper products closet, and markers to redo the pricing on the signs your food chairman forgot to update from last year, you’ll be glad you can call the night custodian by name.