Love 'em or hate 'em, teachers play a key role in the success of any parent group. When teachers are on your side, they can improve PTO programs, make fundraising more successful, help build support among parents and administrators, and more. When you're not working successfully with teachers, almost everything becomes harder.

If you are starting the school year feeling isolated and unconnected with the teachers at your school, ask yourself this question: Do you know what teachers really care about? Here are four keys to working well with teachers. They involve understanding what's important to teachers and incorporating that understanding into your group's plans.

1. Curriculum Enrichment

Teachers love programs that tie into their curricula, and they like to have input into what types of programs are run. The beginning of the year is the most convenient time for teachers to work with parent groups on planning curriculum enrichment because teachers come to school two or three days early to attend all-day meetings about the curriculum and to plan events, activities, field trips, and lessons that correlate with state benchmarks.

Schedule a slot during one of these meeting days to talk to the teachers about their curriculum needs for the year. Hand out surveys to learn which activities have been successful in the past, which curriculum areas need the most enrichment, which teachers are able to volunteer and in what capacity. Schedule time during the day to meet with teachers from each grade level to discuss their needs and ideas on a more individual basis.

Together, parents and teachers at East Haddam Elementary School in Moodus, Conn., select cultural events appropriate to grade level and course of study. One successful assembly features a Chinese dance group performing for second-graders to coincide with their unit on Asia. "One of our most successful ways of involving teachers is through our Cultural Arts Program," says Amy Widmark, PTO president. "Instead of our PTO choosing and hosting cultural arts events independently, we spend a lot of time surveying teachers, administration, etc., about what types of events would help enrich the current curriculum."

The PTO sends out written surveys to each grade level team asking the following questions:

  • What are your major areas of study?

  • Which areas do you think would be best enhanced by a cultural arts event?

  • What types of events in the past have been, in your opinion, successful/unsuccessful—and which should not be repeated?

  • Are you aware of any specific cultural arts performers or events that you would like the PTO to pursue?

Include questions like these in your own back-to-school surveys to let teachers know that you are on their side in planning curriculum enrichment.

Lucy Putlak, president of the Oak Terrace Elementary School PTO in Highwood, Ill., says, "We have more teacher involvement than most schools. In fact we had a Cinco de Mayo celebration that was essentially a fun fair, and a teacher was the chairperson." Students played games, ate Mexican cuisine, and enjoyed Mexican music and dance.

The Oak Terrace PTO uses recognition to get the teachers on its side in planning events such as the Cinco de Mayo festival. PTO leaders make sure that parent and teacher volunteers are mentioned in the local newspaper as well as in a prominent piece in the school newsletter. Teachers who chair committees receive the most volunteers in their classrooms, more involved room parents, and special gifts at the annual teacher luncheon. Perks like these can be mentioned in the initial back-to-school PTO meeting to encourage teacher participation in coordinating curriculum-related events.

Teachers agree that everyone needs to be involved in the learning process. Joan Krsak, fourth-grade teacher at Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, says, "I think PTOs should be involved in curriculum because student achievement and learning should be everyone's primary focus. PTOs could be incredibly helpful by organizing enrichment career days, guest speakers, parent and teacher nights around specific curriculum focuses, and special assemblies."

Krsak recommends that parent groups appoint at least one or two teacher liaisons to help bounce ideas back and forth when planning events and to keep in touch with teachers' needs. PTO members also might sit in on a few grade-level meetings to discuss events and to present informal outlines to teachers and administrators as the curriculum enrichment planning progresses.

2. Opening Supply Lines

Teachers often spend the beginning of the school year attending workshops, seminars, and continuing education classes. They learn new teaching techniques that can help students achieve higher test scores, think like scientists, and become better writers. The newer teaching techniques are often creative and fun. However, they require a diverse array of supplies. Some teachers start the year spending more than $1,000 of their own money to buy the supplies that the school does not provide.

Balloons, pennies, blocks and Legos, sand, Silly Putty, magnetic numbers and letters, modeling clay, measuring cups, Ziploc bags, envelopes, Matchbox cars, clothespins. These are all expected stock to teach the kinds of lessons that correlate to today's standardized tests.

Ask PTO members to dig through their garage or basement for these materials. Fill gift bags with the donated items and present them to the teachers, perhaps at the back-to-school meeting. You'll be amazed at the joy a few simple items from your home can bring to a teacher.

Don't forget to make up bags for the special education teachers. Jessica Witten, special education teacher at Fairmoor Elementary, says, "Blocks, sand, penny collections, and anything else that could be used for hands-on learning works best for my students. I use a lot of manipulatives to teach counting and measuring skills."

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The Oak Terrace PTO has an Angel Fund, which is a teacher wish list for items the budget does not provide. "Our Angel Fund chair does a lot to get teachers involved, says Lucy Putlak, PTO president. "We ask that teachers come to the meetings with their wish lists, and we give each grade an opportunity to speak and announce their needs. Items needed are posted in each classroom, and we are always updating the lists."

The principal at Oak Terrace Elementary School has recently started to review teachers' Angel Fund requests, marking items as necessaries or extras. The teachers receive a monetary budget for new items, but there is no limit to requests on used items. Requests for used items are published by grade in a newsletter each Friday. The response to the used-item requests has been positive. One teacher even received a small refrigerator for her classroom last year.

The Oak Terrace PTO organizes the back-to-school supply list by teacher and grade level and publishes it in English and Spanish.

Krsak, fourth grade teacher at Fairmoor Elementary, suggests making supply lists available all year and posting them in stores such as Staples and Office Depot. Many schools have each teacher type up a list of supplies that the students will need to start the school year. The lists are handed in to a manager or customer service representative, who then hangs the lists in a prominent place.

3. Talk, Talk, Talk

Many teachers pursue master's degrees and juggle part-time jobs in addition to managing a full-time teaching career, or they divide time between their full-time teaching careers and their families. Understandably, it has become increasingly difficult to attract teachers to events outside of regular school hours.

For this reason, many successful parent groups don't worry about attracting teachers to their meetings. Instead, they value teacher input and help on PTO projects. The main goal is to get the support and aid of the teachers on a regular basis, not to see their faces at a meeting once a month.

To do this, it's important to open the lines of communication with teachers. You have many tools to get your message across: paper newsletters, email, web page, flyers, phone calls. They all have advantages and disadvantages. Newsletters may gravitate, unread, to the bottom of the in box. Emails may not get opened. Flyers may get lost or thrown away. The webpage provides a ready reference that's always available, but it's passive—teachers have to make the effort to go there. The first rule of good communication is to use as many of these tools as you can. The more ways in which you deliver your message, the more likely it is to be heard.

Frances Jenkins, PTO president at Collins Lane Elementary School in Frankfort, Ky., makes sure that her PTO is consistent about writing a monthly newsletter and has the principal forward the letter to all of the staff. The newsletter is posted on the Collins Lane website. The group also makes an effort to connect one-on-one with the teachers instead of directing all communication through the principal. "I feel that this is a great benefit for teacher involvement keeping our teachers informed has worked for us," Jenkins says.

Loud speaker messages and short memos placed in teachers' mailboxes are great ways to convey information to busy teachers, says Lisa Meyers, eighth grade teacher at White Plains Middle School, White Plains, N.Y. While not all teachers will find the time to read a newsletter, short memos grab everyone's attention, and they can be read much faster. Messages over the loud speaker at the beginning of the school day, before the kids are in the classrooms, are great because teachers can multi-task by listening while setting up chairs or writing on the blackboard, Meyers says.

Jessica Witten, special education teacher at Fairmoor Elementary School, says, "I love when the PTO puts brief memos in my mailbox about upcoming events with plenty of advance notice, so I can rearrange my schedule accordingly."

4. A Little Appreciation

Every year in May, parent groups all across the country celebrate their schools' teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. That's a nice event, but if you really want to cultivate a strong relationship with teachers, show them all year long that they're appreciated.

"It definitely helps a teacher strive for excellence when their hard work does not go unnoticed. Thank you cards, letters, and phone calls are the best forms of thanks," says Michael Meyers, fourth grade teacher at Public School 178 in the Bronx, N.Y.

"It is important to feel appreciated. It's important for every human to feel valued, not just teachers," agrees Krsak of Fairmoor Elementary School. "Ways to show appreciation include verbal encouragement, active participation, monthly recognition of quality classes or teachers, support for teacher decisions, and having students come on time and prepared for school."

Use all of these methods to show teachers that you know what an important role they play in creating a strong school and a good education for your community's children. "We try to make our teachers understand how much we appreciate the hard and underpaid work they do. We are in this together with them, and want what's best for our kids," says Jenkins.

Schools work best when parents, teachers, and administrators work in partnership. When each of these groups complement and support each other, school performance improves and so does student achievement. So reach out to your school's teachers. The benefits can be tremendous.

Eileen Palma is a veteran teacher and PTO volunteer.