I was just elected PTO president and set up a time to meet with the principal. The last time I was in the principal’s office was in 3rd grade. What’s the best way to get our working relationship off to a good start?

A wise person once reminded me of the adage “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Heeding this advice made me more effective as a PTO president many years ago, and then later as a teacher, and ending my career as a school principal. Every school principal knows that strong home-school relationships help students be more successful and help the school be more effective. Building a strong school climate includes parents and the community—an effective school cannot function without this strong partnership.

In order to launch that positive relationship, there are a few basic steps that will help clear the path for a most productive and positive journey ahead. They include the following:

  1. Your principal will not be able to resist a pleasant note expressing how thrilled you are to serve as the newly elected PTO president and that you are looking forward to a fantastic year of teamwork for the continued success of students, teachers, and the school community. The key here is your enthusiasm about your role and willingness to meet and talk about the upcoming school year.

  2. In the note, ask when would be a convenient time (over the next two weeks) for the principal to meet. Would she like you to make an appointment with the school secretary?

  3. Come to the meeting on time and be prepared with an outline of what you would like to discuss and questions to ask. This is beneficial to both parties.

  4. Smile, smile, smile. Thank the principal for taking time to meet and immediately take out your notes, pad of paper, and a pen. This shows your sense of business and organization and will be appreciated.

  5. As you discuss traditional as well as newly initiated activities and events, make sure that the principal understands each one. Ask for opinions and seek her views. If you are speaking with a brand-new principal at the school, be prepared to show pictures (an album of photos or a folder stored on your computer). New administrators are learning, as well, and would appreciate knowing what the PTO has typically done in the past.

  6. Before you leave that first meeting, express your eagerness to work together and to keep communication open. This is a nice segue into scheduling monthly (at least) meetings with the principal. I have found that getting together before the monthly board meetings is helpful. Usually 30 to 45 minutes is sufficient.

  7. Keeping positive relationships with teachers is another key element in developing rapport and harmony with the principal. Remember, the principal has responsibility for all members of the school community to work together. If there is a conflict between a teacher and a parent, always encourage the parent to talk with the teacher first and try to come to a resolution.

  8. Finally, warmth and kindness are important. Remembering special days (the principal’s birthday) or simply taking a box of doughnuts to the teachers lounge or the school secretary once in a while goes a long way toward showing caring and a willingness to work together. It builds the spirit that buoys relationships.

We have parents who want to volunteer in classrooms, but the principal doesn’t seem to like the idea. I don’t get it. Isn’t parent involvement supposed to help kids?

This is an age-old concern. Perhaps the principal has had a negative experience and that is why he is hesitant, or teachers in the building may not be comfortable with or know how to use parents in the classroom. There may be legal requirements for parent volunteers established by the school district for the protection and confidentiality of students.

It is important to find out the reason behind the principal’s attitude about classroom volunteers. Check into the district policy on how parents can participate in the classroom.

However, in this age of funding shortages and individual student needs in the classroom, more hands can be valuable. Having an open conversation with the principal to come to a mutual agreement on how to proceed is the very heart of problem-solving. If the principal is aware of the parents who are generously willing to volunteer to support teachers and help children learn, he will be open to the discussion, especially if presented gently with suggestions that are low threat. Of great help to students and teachers in the classroom is scheduling parents to listen to children read, or to read to them. Playing learning games and working at centers is helpful also and does not require teachers to do extra planning. Teachers can always use an extra adult to help with small groups of children or one-on-one tasks. It is important to communicate that parents do not want to make more work for the teacher. Teachers may perceive the offer for class volunteers as another responsibility for them to monitor in their already busy day.

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The principal at our school is a micromanager! He schedules PTO meetings, puts together the agenda, and seems to think he’s in charge of the PTO. What can we do about this?

The tone for separation yet collaboration between the school and the PTO needs to be set before the school year begins. Establishing a working relationship between the PTO president and the school principal means the PTO president, especially in this scenario, needs to take leadership of the group she heads. The bylaws of the PTO should outline the various roles and responsibilities of the officers, and this can be a starting point for conversation with the principal.

As springtime approaches and a new board is elected, the new president should plan to meet with the principal to discuss the direction of the PTO for the next school year. It is important to do this in a manner of appreciation, collaboration, and a sincere desire to take the burden of the meetings, agendas, and planning off the principal’s shoulders—after all, the principal has many responsibilities and the PTO is there to help. An effective leader learns to delegate and capitalize on the talents of many in the organization for the greater good of the consumer: students and parents. The PTO president should discuss the idea of shared leadership and delegating responsibilities to others as a good way to build a strong team.

Our principal controls every penny we make and spend, and she uses the PTO money for anything she likes. How much say does the principal have in how the PTO spends its money?

Spring is a perfect time to discuss the allocation and distribution of funds. Principals are accustomed to developing a budget for the upcoming school year at this point in the current year, so the timing is opportune (but other times are fine, as well). If the PTO bylaws do not specify that funds should be allocated through mutual discussion—with the final decision in the hands of the PTO board—then an amendment would be in order. I also suggest that most funding allotments be based upon more than someone’s suggestion or wish list. Spending parent and taxpayer money should be related to school and district goals that reflect student achievement, safety, and well-being.

In most cases, the PTO board budgets a certain amount of money for the principal to spend on items or needs as they arise during the school year. However, the principal should be required to make a formal written request to the PTO board before she has access to the “principal’s account.” The request should indicate how the money will be used and how it will benefit the students. The principal may come to the board with additional funding requests; however, they will be handled at the discretion of the board—it is not automatic.

Before initiating the new policy, talk with the principal about the importance of having guidelines, functioning as a business, and being accountable to the parents and school community for responsible expenditure of their money. The principal will also respect the integrity and professional attitude of the PTO board when the board members consistently reflect responsible spending. This will build an even stronger PTO reputation of trust, integrity, and accountability to the stakeholders. The PTO board can request sample bylaws from other PTO boards to show the principal that this gesture is a sound and safe step for all.

We can’t get the principal to show up to our meetings. He wants our money but doesn’t want to support us. What should we do?

As part of his leadership role, the school principal should attend all PTO meetings, including those scheduled in the evenings with the larger parent community. The principal’s non-attendance can be a reflection of relationship and communication needs. However, it can also be as simple as a scheduling issue. By putting the 30-minute monthly PTO president/school principal meetings and the monthly board meetings on the master school calendar before the beginning of the school year, the tone and expectation for collaboration and communication is established clearly up front.

If this problem develops during the school year, however, the PTO president should make an appointment with the principal to explain how important it is to have his presence at meetings in order to maintain positive and open communication and relationships between the parents and the school. (I would think a school leader would know this but may need a reminder.) By appealing to the principal’s sense of commitment to the greater good of children and families, I cannot imagine this problem persisting.

Trish Dolasinski holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master’s degree in special education. In addition to her 16 years as a school principal, she has served as a classroom teacher and also a PTO president.