Ask parent group leaders why they first got involved in school, and they’ll tell you it’s because they want the best for their kids. But sometimes, the roles of parent and PTO leader can be hard to balance. For one thing, it’s difficult to explain to your kids why you have to help the school instead of helping them with their latest project. Then there are the times you need to be “just a parent” at school. Can you talk with staff members about your child without bringing your parent group role into it?

Navigating situations like these can be challenging, something I learned firsthand when I served as a PTA president. I talked with other experienced leaders to find out how they handled moments when being a leader and being a parent came into conflict.

Family Matters

When you’re considering taking on a leadership role, share with your family—including the children—why you’re interested in it and what you hope to achieve. Let them know up front about the schedule, such as if your meetings are the first Tuesday at 9:15 a.m. or every other Thursday at 7 p.m. Put the meetings on a family calendar so your family knows when you’ll be tied up.

If your kids are part of the decision, they might understand a little more when you are away for “another night meeting” and why you aren’t there to do homework with them. Let them know how much time you think you’ll be gone or whether it’s a busy week.

If possible, make volunteering a family affair by inviting them to come with you. Irish Joy Kreis, treasurer of the Jackson Elementary PTO in Green River, Wyo., suggests that having your kids see you in action at school events has other benefits, too. “When we have a family movie night, my three kids get to see me setting up the room, greeting the families, making popcorn, and representing their school,” Kreis says. “I lose the opportunity to spend that time with them, but I gain an opportunity to show them the power of volunteer work.”

If you get stressed, enlist your spouse or partner for their perspective. Sometimes we need a little distance from a situation if we know “too much.” It’s helpful to ask a more impartial party to help you evaluate if your feelings are sound. Everyone has wondered if she’s overreacted or handled something correctly, but second-guessing will keep you up at night—and you need your sleep!

More on Planning & Organization

PTO President's Planning Checklist

Annual Parent Group Planning Calendar

Let Others Do More

Think about what tasks on your to do list you can give your children, recommends Dawn Woolford, a veteran PTO volunteer for Bedford Public Schools in Temperance, Mich. “My kids are in high school and college now, but when I was volunteering I think we tried to do it all for them,” she says. “Looking back, it was the times the kids did things on their own that increased development and fostered life skills.” If she had it to do over again, Woolford says, she would relax more, give more tasks to her kids, and worry less about them not
doing things the right way.

“It’s OK for kids to fail,” Woolford says. “If they realize their uniform isn’t clean for a game or they haven’t prepped for a test, it’s all part of a learning experience on the road to independence.”

Similarly, delegate when you have a committee willing to help. Don’t feel the need to control the details. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

If you identify with the phrase “stop me before I volunteer again,” Kristy Roy, who volunteered for years with the Henking Hoffman PTA in Glenview, Ill., suggests the power of a positive “no.” “Saying no can be so hard when you love to volunteer, like I did,” Roy says. “But, saying no to one thing meant I was saying yes to something else: a run, a few more errands checked off, time with a book, or a call with a friend—all positive!”

It can be uncomfortable to say no and trust that someone else will pick up the slack, but focusing on the benefits of doing so makes it easier. “Framing no as a positive no made it possible for me to cut myself some slack and be more present wherever I was because I wasn’t juggling too much,” Roy says.

Roles at School

As a PTO officer, you may meet with the principal or superintendent in a smaller group setting and be exposed to school decisions before the rest of the parent community. Often, because of your exposure to the administration and your relationships with parents, you can help explain to a school leader how information might be received by parents.

The feedback you share might not affect your child, but it’s for the good of the entire school. School leaders usually appreciate parent-given insights that are constructive and helpful rather than judgmental.

School leaders might assume what you say is your personal opinion and not that of a spokesperson for the larger parent community, so be clear. It’s important to let the principal know when you are there as a parent and when you are representing the parent group.

When I was a middle school PTA president, the school decided to change the National Junior Honor Society grade point requirement midyear and didn’t communicate it clearly. I met with the principal and shared the concerns I had heard from many parents, and she took my input from the larger community. In the same meeting, I shifted to a question about my daughter and let her know I was now asking about our personal situation. It was important to make this distinction.

It’s common to talk about wearing different hats depending on the role you play. Kreis wears different lanyards to distinguish when she’s doing PTO work at the school and when she’s volunteering in the classroom.
She volunteers at the school on average 15 to 20 hours a week and is often stopped in the halls to discuss something PTO-related. When that happens, she says she flashes her volunteer badge and says she’s off PTO duty and just being a mom, adding, “Send me an email, and when I am in PTO mode tonight I’ll answer you.”