If people say your group is a clique, it is. In this case, perception matters.
by Tim Sullivan

In my seat, I hear every day from parent group leaders desperately trying to get more parents involved in their groups. Parent involvement is the most searched term on our PTOtoday.com Web site. Our involvement seminars are the most well attended talks at our PTO Today conferences. Clearly, parent group leaders want more parents involved. You’d love help. You’d gladly allow someone else a turn counting gift wrap receipts.

Why is it, then, that so many parents feel closed out of and unwelcome in parent groups? Why is “the PTO is a clique” the most whispered criticism of parent groups across the country?

The answer: Your group is a clique. The critics have a point.

The problem is that in matters of membership and involvement, impressions matter far more than reality. If even one parent thinks of your group as a clique, then you are a clique. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is clique-ism. And the sooner you realize that, the more effective your involvement efforts will become.

When it comes to this discussion, I always think back to a mom who was sitting in the middle of the pack during an involvement seminar at our Dallas conference last year. At first glance, she was quiet and unassuming, but when she spoke her words made the entire room sit up and take notice.

She spoke with passion about the very first PTO meeting she attended at her school three years earlier. She was new to the town, and her oldest child had just entered the school. She knew no one at the meeting and little about how parent groups work. But she knew she wanted to get involved. And she found the courage—she used the word courage; it’s how she felt—to attend the meeting as a stranger in a strange place.

When she arrived at the meeting, there were about 15 moms in attendance. One group of about eight—she later learned they were the officers and a couple of chairpeople—were at the front of the room talking together.

The meeting went off without a hitch: minutes, treasurer’s report, old business, new business. Officers sat at a head table, and several times inside jokes were passed about past PTO events and school activities. Building membership and increasing meeting attendance were mentioned several times, though this newcomer never did raise her hand to volunteer. She also wasn’t asked personally. She didn’t introduce herself to the officers, nor did the officers introduce themselves to her or to the group.

She went home and vowed never to go back to a PTO meeting. She felt like an outsider and hated that feeling. To her, the PTO was a clique and she wasn’t part of it. At our conference, she compared the feeling to her high school days and not being part of the cool crowd. She was near tears at the end of her story.

Amazingly enough, her story concludes with her now as president of that same PTO, and she makes it her everyday mission to be sure her group is as welcoming as it can be. It’s an amazing turnabout, and she’s truly a rare volunteer. Just a very few parents would jump back in after that initial experience. Most would chalk it up to a lesson learned and never go back.

What are new parents experiencing when they first interact with your group?

The funny thing is that I’d almost guarantee that the leaders of that Texas group didn’t see themselves as a clique. And I know that they didn’t mean to shut people out. But impressions are so powerful.

It’s up to you to institute policies and procedures and habits that create an atmosphere of openness to newcomers. Even if it’s awkward or feels a bit goofy, you—at every meeting and every event—need to look proactively for new faces and personally welcome them. At every meeting, all of your officers should introduce themselves, and every newcomer should be recognized. Deliberately avoid the circles of friends or leaders that naturally develop in every group. Have your leaders sit out in the crowd, not together and certainly not at a head table.

A few more tips:

  • Have a greeter at the door of your meetings and events, someone specifically assigned to make newcomers feel welcome.
  • Use nametags to level the playing field between newcomers and well-known veterans.
  • Always explain business items, even if they’re held over from previous meetings. Don’t assume “everybody knows.”
  • Make people raise their hands and be recognized before they speak. Otherwise meetings can devolve into chit-chat, almost always among the “regulars.”

You can’t eliminate all criticism, but you can choose whether to listen to critics to see whether there may be a grain of truth or to dismiss them out of hand. In the clique case, you’ll do well to err on the side of the critics. Greater involvement will be the result.



#21 Rose Cafasso 2013-02-26 21:03
Thanks for posting. Have things improved at all since the initial meeting? For more on this topic, I'll pass along a link to a blog post our founder Tim Sullivan recently wrote on this subject. (And, it contains links to additional stories.) I think it will be helpful.

My Tip of the Week: Is Your Group a Clique: ptotoday.com/.../...

Best of luck and keep in touch,
Rose C.
Community Manager
#20 Mary 2013-02-26 11:39
So delighted to read this article. I joined the pto and I think I wasnt suppose to go up for election as I am a new parent to the school. The first meeting was held that night and only for the previous chair caught me going out the door, I would have missed the meeting. The others had sat in a corner and by the time I sat down the chair had already decided she was doing chairperson and others had already assumed roles with practically no explanation as to whats involved in the roles and whether anyone else would like to fufill these roles. I joined to help the school and really it took all my stamina to return to meetings.
#19 beentheredonethat 2012-05-15 16:30
Dear Unclebeezy....B EEN THERE, DONE THAT. Newsflash...you r organization is STILL a clique! Nothing will change. You, as a man, obviously have NO CLUE about how women interact, who make up 99% of your PTO. YOU MUST BE INVITATIONAL ...that means YOU invite THEM...you know, us folks with the "panties!"
#18 Susan 2012-03-15 14:57
I too have been in the same boat as all of these posts. I am going to try and make the first event we are doing a hugh success and hopefully the parents will realize that with help we can do a lot more things for out school. I vote all of you hang in there and speak your voice and unite!!!!!!!!!! !!!
#17 Karen 2011-07-25 13:58
Hi, I was a new parent going through the same frustrations that many of these parents have with their PTO. So I decided to do something about it...I ran fro President and the old President wasn't happy in fact she wrote a rather nasty letter to the Principal as to why she felt I shouldn't be President, and she didn't even know me. In fact her "clique" wanted the PTO to shut down. The last two PTO board members were cliques and unfortunately allot of our school is that way..but we have a great group of people and diverse this upcoming year. 2 frist grade mom's..whose children were in separate rooms, a veteran whose oldest in is 6th grade and whose youngest is in kindergarten and then me with a 4th grader. We are trying to put ourselves out there as a group but not as a clique..our problem will be to get the "cliques" to volunteer when one of their own won't be running everything. We have our work cut out for us..but I think we can do it! Just by being more open and friendly.
#16 Lisa 2011-07-20 08:30
I also experienced "the clique" during the son's Kindergarten year. I attended the first two meetings and you do feel left out. I stopped working when my son was in the first grade and decided for the next yea I would join the PTA as the treasurer. I have since been treasurer for two years and the second year seem to be a nightmare because I was not part the "the clique." Parents considered the executive board to be racist because of things our vice president said. Less and less parents want to help but the president sure wants the parents to support her fundraisers.
#15 Unclebeezy 2011-04-17 12:13
This whole forum is kinda funny to me. It's all about, "Moms", "women", women's group, and already has me on the outs as a male PTO Vice President at my school site.
I say put your big boy or big girl pants on if you truly want to be involved and break into the clique. It's the nature of the beast and I pushed right through it at our school site. Next year I plan on being the President and changing that attitude and perhaps even bring on another male.
#14 rocket 2010-11-13 12:29
I am shocked that folks on this site keep associating shyness with immaturity. I can certainly understand why parents would be put off by this kind of attitude. I am a naturally shy person, but when I am fulfilling my role at PTO board functions I go out of my way to be friendly and welcoming to everyone. Maybe it's because I am shy that I understand and empathize with those folks. You can say "grow up and take responsibility" but you will not win any new members that way. I want more parent involvement and if hand patting helps that happen, I will certainly do it.
#13 Patti Wigington 2010-06-01 16:40
My twins are in fourth grade right now, so I've spent five years as a member of the school's PTO. When I first arrived, as a kindergarten mom, I felt that the "old guard" PTO was fairly exclusionary. However, instead of sitting there waiting for someone to come pat me on the head and welcome me, I walked in, made my presence known, and made a point of having my voice heard. I'm an adult - if I feel out of place, I can choose to change that.

Now, our "old guard" has moved on, we've had new blood come into the PTO with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things, and the new people are made to feel welcome so that they never have to wonder if the group is a clique that they can't be part of. When I leave the school next month, I know that the group is in excellent hands, and all parents will be made to feel valued.
#12 Rebecca 2009-11-15 06:27
"she knew she wanted to get involved. And she found the courage— it’s how she felt—to attend the meeting as a stranger. When she arrived at the meeting, there were about 9 people in attendance. One group of about 4 were at the front of the room talking together. The meeting went off without a hitch: minutes, treasurer’s report, old business, new business. Officers sat at a head table. Building membership and increasing meeting attendance were mentioned, though this newcomer never did raise her hand to volunteer. She also wasn’t asked personally. She didn’t introduce herself to the officers, nor did the officers introduce themselves to her or to the group.She went home and vowed never to go back to a PTO meeting. I JUST ATTENDED MY FIRST PTO MEETING AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME. IT AMAZED ME THAT ONE OF THE PEOPLE AT THE "HEAD" TABLE ASKED DURING THE MEETING WHY PEOPLE FROM PREVIOUS MEETINGS WERE NOT COMING BACK........... .......

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