Done right, meetings help keep the group cohesive and on track. Done wrong, they can become a time pit and involvement killer.
Parent to PTO officer (maybe you): “I’ll volunteer to do anything you want; just don’t make me come to a meeting!”
People dread meetings. Meetings are often thought of as long, boring, pointless. Which would you rather do, get something accomplished or go to a meeting? As a leader, especially a new leader, that perception can be intimidating. You don’t want your meetings to be “bad.” But how often do you hear of a “good” meeting?
New leaders rarely get any training on running a meeting. You might have sat through a few and gotten an idea of some things that work and some that don’t. Maybe the previous leader offered a few tips, like “Mary complains about everything. Don’t call on her if you can help it.” But that doesn’t amount to much when you’re up there on your own.
In fact, meetings are an important tool for any organization. They provide face-to-face contact between members. They give focused energy to a specific topic, issue, or project. Done well, they are an efficient way to share ideas, debate issues, make decisions, and build community. A well-run meeting also demonstrates respect for members’ time and opinions.
Without regular personal contact, an organization can become fragmented into cliques. Committees will operate in a vacuum, perhaps drifting away from their intended purpose. A few insiders will know what’s going on, but others will feel alienated from the key decisionmakers. Meetings have a way of pulling the group back together, if they’re done right.
Whether it is a regular parent group meeting, an executive board session, or even a committee meeting, the same basic concepts apply. A good meeting doesn’t just happen on its own; it’s planned and managed.
Prepare to preside. If you’re not experienced in leading a meeting, admit it and take action. Read a book about basic meeting management, apply tips from this article and others, familiarize yourself with the basics of Robert’s Rules of Order. Ask the former president for advice, and check with long-term parent group members about how they would like meetings to be run. It’s OK to be nervous, but don’t be unprepared.
Promote the meeting. Get the word out in as many ways as possible: newsletter, take-home flyer, email broadcast, website announcement, school cable television, display case at school, school message sign, and others. Be sure to explain why a parent or family would want to participate. What will be their benefit? Why should they take time to attend? Market the event, fulfill your parents’ expectations, and thank everyone for coming; they’ll be more likely to come back.
Be on time and start on time. Arrive early enough to allow time for final preparations such as photocopying handouts, brewing coffee, and arranging chairs. Start on time. Period. If people continue to talk after you’ve called the meeting to order, they are being rude. You’re not being rude by getting started. When practical, also announce an ending time for the meeting. If the meeting is running long, consider tabling remaining business until next time.
Cooperate with school staff. Work closely with the custodial and support staff. Provide advance written notice of the meeting schedule and your needs, such as table and chair arrangements. Leave the meeting room at least as clean and organized as when you arrived. Respect the custodial staff; you might be surprised how often they help with parent group activities.
Set up appropriate seating. If you have a small number of participants at your meeting, consider arranging the chairs in a circle or having everyone sit around the same table. Using a head table for the officers implies a separation between “us” and “them,” which doesn’t convey a spirit of cooperation. Sitting in a circle also helps break the tendency for cliques to sit together and encourages quieter members to participate.
Introduce yourself and others. Don’t assume you know who’s who! Ask. Better yet, provide nametags and introduce yourself to new faces. Start every meeting with a welcome message. Most PTO meetings are small enough that all attendees can introduce themselves at the start of every meeting. It might seem awkward to hear your good friends introduce themselves to each other, but the newcomers will appreciate it and feel less like outsiders.
Follow the agenda. Plan the meeting ahead of time and write down the sequence of events so you don’t forget anything important. List specific topics under general categories such as “new business,” “unfinished business,” and “committee reports.” Include open discussion at the end of the meeting, and note the date, time, and place for the next meeting. Distribute hard copies so the attendees can track the progress of the meeting and take notes if desired.
Be enthusiastic and upbeat. Even if you are worried about volunteer participation, fundraising, or the group’s reputation, set a positive tone. As leader of the group, your excitement will rub off on other parents.
Nurture new members. New members who don’t speak up are probably overwhelmed, bored, satisfied, or intimidated. It’s your job to figure out which. Don’t leave new members to drift on their own. Treat your newest members as the future parent group leaders that they are.
Know your bylaws. Familiarize yourself with your group’s bylaws, standing rules, policies, and precedents so you can properly address unexpected issues. If you’re caught off-guard by an assertive member with a controversial topic, consider tabling the issue for a month to allow time for the board to research the issue.
Keep control. It’s your responsibility to keep the meeting on task. Call on individuals who want to speak to the issue at hand, trying hard to alternate between “pro” and “con” viewpoints. Do not tolerate crosstalk, side conversations, or detailed committee discussions. Unrestrained debate may be the most common reason that general parent group meetings drag–and why so many parents swear they’ll never attend again.
Be impartial. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, the president must remain publicly neutral, stay out of debate, and vote only when necessary to break a tie. Your personal feelings, expressed in the context of a formal parent group meeting, can improperly sway others. Your job is to preside, not influence.
Respect your guests. If you invite guest speakers, put them first on the agenda. Introduce them, thank the guest speakers for their time, and allow them to leave when they’re finished.
Partner with your principal. Review the meeting agenda with the principal in advance. Work together to target topics for his report, and specify the amount of time allocated. During the meeting, don’t be afraid to direct the principal politely to stay on point, just as you would a fellow parent.