As a group, PTO and PTA leaders tend to be a passionate lot. We wouldn’t be doing this often underappreciated, always time-consuming, and always underpaid work if we didn’t have a passion for our schools and the kids.
But that same passion can be a problem for our groups if we take it too far. Your next big idea and your plans for your group have to fit within a very complicated ecosystem at your school—one filled with a variety of needs, different personalities, and an ever-changing set of priorities and challenges.
If you ignore all of those issues within your school and focus only on what your PTO or PTA needs, then you are sure to run into temporary roadblocks and—worse yet—long-term difficulties finding the support you need to thrive. As a leader of your group, you need to make sure you’re thinking about your school as a whole first, and your group’s needs second.
In the end, taking others’ needs into consideration is actually the best way for your group to reach its own goals.
The key question for your group: Is our goal to make our school as great a place for our children as it can be? Or is it to make our parent group as powerful as can be? These are very different goals.
This kind of perspective helps uncover the whys behind some basic PTO and PTA questions.
You may get frustrated when your principal doesn’t approve your every idea. But perhaps he is dealing with a ton of budget pressure during a particular month or a vexing staff issue with the teachers union. For your group to succeed for the long-term, you simply have to be aware of, and plan around, the real concerns of your principal.
Even smaller concerns should be considered, whether they are about your principal, school staff, or other parents. If your principal doesn’t like public speaking, for example, make sure your group has an emcee for every event. When it’s time to set your group’s calendar, collaborate with your principal and the entire breadth of school schedulers (drama club director, chorus director, and so on) rather than insisting on dates that only work for the parent volunteers. Make it a habit to ask how your goals and needs fit within the school ecosystem.
This kind of thinking will help you with many other frequent dilemmas. I hear from many schools where fundraising efforts overlap. The PTO thinks it’s being careful by holding only four fundraisers, but the drama club also has a big sale, the sports teams each have their own, and the principal runs a magazine sale separately, as well.
Is it any wonder in those schools that parents feel burnt out by fundraising? We know that’s not your goal, so communication and compromise both have to be part of the equation.
How do teachers feel about your efforts? If you really want to make a long-term connection with teachers, ask these three questions, and then make plans with the answers in mind: 1. Which of our current efforts do you like most? 2. Are there any systems or habits of our group that are a real pain for you or are your least favorite? 3. Do you have school or classroom goals that we could help with?
We’ve seen groups that have added three different reading initiatives (a family reading night, an all-school reading incentive program, and a book club, for example) after the teachers mentioned that getting the whole school to read more was the big goal of the school year. And PTO-teacher teamwork really took off. The same can hold true on smaller efforts like changing fundraiser order systems or adding an organized teacher wish list program.
Your new approach should extend throughout the school. What are the needs and concerns of the office staff? The cafeteria and janitorial staff? All of these subsets within your school have important jobs and their own set of priorities and pet peeves.
Thinking of your group as a key cog among many key cogs, as opposed to a group of volunteers who should have their every thought supported with a smile, will make you a much more well-liked and effective part of your successful school.