The PTA’s relationship with teachers wasn’t the best at Jennings Lodge and Candy Lane, two linked elementary schools less than a mile apart in Milwaukie, Ore. Tensions worsened about five years ago when some parents complained about a classroom teacher and when a faculty member voiced resentment about the confusing PTA process for awarding grants. While teachers did participate in some PTA events, their attendance and enthusiasm lagged.

The parent group, which serves both schools, reached out to teachers last year by improving communication, simplifying the system for teacher funding requests, and showing appreciation for all that the teachers do. The result has been remarkable. “We probably have one of the strongest PTAs in years and years,” says Teresa Figgins, who teaches a 5th grade bilingual class at Candy Lane. “They’re very upbeat and positive and glad to see us and listen when we talk.”

However, it took time to convince teachers that the PTA really did want to help them. “There was a feeling of their having to beg for money if they wanted something and that the powers that be had to find it worthy, that maybe requests wouldn’t be granted or that it was a cumbersome process,” says PTA president Shawnda Horn. “So we’ve tried to create a system where they just have to fill out a form if there’s anything they need.”

These days, even though not every request is granted—for example, the PTA decided that funds for a shed for emergency supplies should come from elsewhere—there’s a new attitude among teachers. “We think we’re showing them that we will honor a lot of their requests,” Horn says. “They’re much more willing to ask.”

In the past, the PTA gave a lump sum to the school for a general need such as technology, or leaders bought items they thought teachers would need. Now teachers are able to identify their own specific needs, and they also have a chance to receive matching grants from the district.

Listening carefully to teachers is one of the keys to how the PTA transformed the dynamic. “They talked to us individually about what would make life easier for us,” Figgins says. Miriam Marx, who has taught kindergarten through 3rd grade at Jennings Lodge, concurs. “They really asked the teachers what we wanted. For example, I wanted to have the zoo come and bring some animals into my classroom for my unit on animal classification. The ‘zoo to school’ program costs $100. A week later, I got a call from the PTA that they had funded this. I just asked. The PTA figured out a way to do it.”

Teachers can make several requests a year; amounts have ranged from $30 to $2,000. Last year, the PTA spent more than $10,000 on these requests, providing the school with technology including interactive whiteboards, MP3 players, flash drives, CD players, and document cameras. The group has also paid for rugs for the library, guest speakers, recorders for the music teacher, gourds for a yearly Hawaiian musical, and band T-shirts. Sometimes the PTA even goes to teachers with ideas. For example, after three teachers wanted audio speakers for their computers, the PTA asked whether anyone else needed them and ended up ordering six sets.

The PTA started a generous innovation last year, for the first time ever giving each teacher $100. “Teachers were able to spend the money, bring receipts, and get what they needed for their classrooms,” says Pam Miller, principal of Jennings Lodge and Candy Lane. “Teachers loved that. They were so appreciative that it was noticed they spend a lot of money out of their own pockets.”

To welcome faculty members back to school, the PTA gave them a card and flowers, which were bought by the hundreds at 10 cents a stem. “We wanted to show them that the PTA had a new face,” says Heidi Watts, who served as secretary last year. “We volunteered to help them set up their classrooms, run errands, and make copies.” Parents also delivered a PTA bin to each of them to collect messages between the teachers and the PTA. “We received huge amounts of praise, thank-yous, surprise, shock,” Horn says. “A lot of teachers were overwhelmed. They couldn’t believe all we were doing for them.”

Later in the year, leaders sent home notes asking children to bring different items each day during Teacher Appreciation Week, such as a flower or a homemade card. “They’re teaching children to treat us with respect and to be grateful,” Figgins says. During that week, the PTA brought in food to the teacher lounge, including a catered lunch, edible fruit bouquets, and home-cooked casseroles from parents.

Another tactic to improve relations had to do with fundraising, which can create tensions between a parent group and teachers. At Jennings Lodge and Candy Lane, the PTA minimized the teachers’ role. “The PTA does it all without making it one more job we have to do,” Figgins says. She describes the fundraising “station”— a storage bin imprinted with each teacher’s name—that members set up in the classrooms: Each bin is placed in a corner, usually by the door. Any fundraising-related communications, including collection envelopes, go into this bin and are picked up by PTA members. “They do all the work,” Figgins says. “They ask that we be enthusiastic but don’t make it intrusive into our teaching at all.”

For the future, the PTA is considering having classroom liaisons. These parents, who would likely have a good relationship with the teacher, would let the PTA know if the teacher has a need and could also let the teacher know when the PTA has a request. And a new PTA officer this year is the volunteer coordinator, who will encourage teachers to participate in more PTA activities.

The PTA would like to have a teacher representative on its board, but Horn recognizes the challenge this involves. “A lot of teachers are parents, too,” she says. “They have their own activities they want to do with their own children at their own schools. We need to understand they teach full time and many of them go home to take their kids to activities.” Still, teacher involvement is encouraged. The music teacher attended a PTA meeting when the band and choir were invited to perform. And a demonstration of whiteboard technology presented by two faculty members was the best-attended meeting of the year.

In retrospect, the past year was an important turning point in how teachers viewed the PTA at Jennings Lodge and Candy Lane elementaries. “We had to spend a year building that relationship, serving, appreciating, thanking the teachers any way we could,” Horn explains. “We did that physically, face-to-face, or by honoring grants or giving gifts or bringing them food during stressful weeks. You have to have some patience and not expect anything to happen overnight. This year, we expect a much better relationship. The more we can learn from them what their needs are, the demands on their time, and honor their time, then we can ask them to help us and appreciate our time.”


Tips To Improve Teacher Relations

  1. Respect teachers’ time and understand how difficult it can be for them to come to PTO events during the evening. You might suggest that they participate on a rotating basis to divide the responsibilities.
  2. Invite teachers to take part in PTO meetings by presenting on a topic of expertise or through their involvement with a student group such as the band.
  3. Try to minimize teachers’ fundraising responsibilities. Make their role as simple as possible.
  4. If you award grants to teachers, make it easy for them to ask for money with a straightforward process and a short, clear form.
  5. Don’t assume that everything you want to do for a teacher will be helpful. You might be creating more work, so be sure to ask first.
  6. Don’t place the teacher in a difficult position. For example, a teacher might not support a limousine ride for the top student fundraisers because it could exacerbate the divide between well-to-do students and those without the means to participate.
  7. Build a relationship with your teachers slowly. It takes time and patience to establish trust and rapport.