PTO Today Blog

Ideas, news, opinions and tips about what’s happening in the parent group world

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One of the big bugaboos of a school auction is the checkout process. After all the hard work groups put in to getting donations, organizing volunteers, and hosting the events, the last thing they need is to end their evenings on a sour note because parents have to wait forever to pay. 

Our Facebook community recently shared ideas on how they tackle auction checkout time so events end on an up note.

Mobile bidding: We are using mobile bidding this year. Bidders can check out on their phones and pay by credit card. Hope it cuts our lines in half. - Jo Ann C.

Designated checkout jobs: We have a tally person and then a few others assigned as cashiers. - Anna M.  

Staggered bid-closing times: We do the bigger ticket items at the silent auction and stagger the closing by color coding tables. - Kathi W. 

Occupy children while parents settle the bill: We have carnival games upstairs and the silent auction downstairs. The auction ends a half-hour before the carnival so the kids can keep playing while the parents wrap up their purchases. - Michelle P.

Separate checkout lines by function: We have two lines, with one person handling cash and checks (with a runner) and one person doing credit card purchases (also with a runner). We also have one central person assisting them using QuickBook software with all customer names preloaded. - Kimberly L. 

Real-time processing: We do a silent auction as part of a trivia night. We stagger the closing time for tables so that they don't all hit at once. We process the bids immediately so that winners can check out when their bidding time is over. - Rosemary S. 

Delayed pickup: We have a wonderful school secretary who doesn't mind people coming in the next week to pick up and pay for their items. So parents are able to leave the auction as needed instead of waiting until the end. - Kris P. 

Clear the room: All auction bidding ends at the same time. We kick everyone out, close the doors, and place winning-bidder numbers alongside corresponding item numbers on a giant sign. We then rearrange the tables as checkout tables. Then we hang the winners’ sign outside of the room, open the doors, and process everyone with two or three checkout lines. - Kris P. 

Posted in Uncategorized

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I remember clearly my reaction the first time someone pointed to me when the PTA president mentioned her term was up the next year. “No, I don’t have the time; I can’t fill her shoes,” was my thought. You see, I always was a little in awe of our leader. She was a poised presenter, comfortable around the school administrators, and in the know. I never thought I had what it took to be the president of our PTA. Until I was asked to do it. 

But before impulsively saying yes (or no), I spent some time thinking about this decision and if was the right thing to do.

First, I told my husband I was contemplating taking this on, and we discussed pros and cons. Second, I thought about what would or wouldn’t sway me to take the job. I decided there were two non-negotiables. One, I had to line up a successor so I wouldn’t “get stuck” in the job until my youngest graduated! Two, I wanted to make sure I had a solid executive board who had my back.  

Then I talked to our outgoing president. I asked many questions such as “How do you run a meeting?” “How often do you meet with the principal?” “Do you have to attend every event?” “How many hours a week do you spend on it?” and so on. She helped me realize that I could make the job my own. Her best advice to me was “You are a volunteer, so contribute as much of your own time as you have to give.” 

That was spot-on—there is no “right” way to lead. But still, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to do it all “wrong.” 

I also asked other parent group leaders (past or present) how they decided whether to run or not. After talking to these people, I developed the following list of questions to consider before taking a leadership position. Some are mine and some are theirs, and all hopefully are helpful:

1) What is the time commitment, and can I manage it? I already knew the monthly meeting dates and times, but needed to find out about the extra time required in addition to the meetings. The outgoing president was a big resource for me, as were the school principals and administrative assistants. I asked them how often we would talk a week or a month to plan the time needed.

2) What sorts of skills would I need? I asked about how the work was mainly done—was it in face-to-face meetings, on the phone, over email? I found out that having computer skills was a big plus, as our PTA was moving more and more to online communications.  

3) What are goals or big initiatives for the year? I had been attending the monthly meetings but wondered what happened behind the scenes—did our group have a large fundraising goal or need to have a large membership push? Knowing in advance to the extent possible what was expected helped me get prepared.

4) What strengths do I bring to the group? I know I’m not a really crafty mom or a financial whiz. But I’m a pretty good delegator and can also bring groups of people together to get things done. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we had a lot of great creative volunteers who could handle the decorations, while I could handle other issues like coming up with ideas to help build our parent community.

5) Who will I be working with? It was important to me to make sure I had other volunteers on the board who were cooperative and willing to help get things done.

6) What are my intentions and will this help meet them? I know many of us were drawn to the parent group to provide community service and improve school for all kids. I realized I wanted to be more involved in my kids’ schools so I could help make positive changes. I wanted to create a stronger sense of community among our parents.

7) How will I be working? I asked around to see if I would be doing it all myself—and luckily for me, the answer was no. Our PTA had many committees and chairs volunteering to help.

8) How will transition work? While our group didn’t have a formal transition plan, we did have an exchange of electronic files. This helped a lot! I also wanted to be sure there was a plan to succeed out of the position too. 

9) How does my family feel about it? I realized the position would take me away from some of my family time, and I needed their support to make it work.

10) Is there someone better suited for the job? This prompted me to take a long look in the mirror and assess what I thought I could bring to the group.

I ultimately decided to take the plunge. Despite some of the questions I had from friends (such as “Are you crazy?”), I’ve really enjoyed it. I even accepted the middle school PTA copresidency this year. I’m still learning and feel like I’m helping make a difference for our schools and students. And that’s what keeps me going.

Posted in Parent Involvement

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I really like our March cover story called “Test Your Fundraising IQ.” It’s definitely worth a good read.

And it got me thinking about my most fundamental belief when it comes to fundraising: Groups spend too much time worrying about products and profit percentage and too little time thinking about the people they are going to partner with to run the fundraiser.

The people are the most important consideration. By far.

A good sales rep from a reputable fundraising company is going to have a quality product. But that rep is going to do so much more than provide product. He is going to be responsive and helpful and solve problems and add ideas that will make you money and reduce work and drama. If you’ve had good luck with a rep or a company, resist the annual temptation to change gears. If you had bad service last year, resist the promise that this year will be better. Above all, resist the profit percentage promises that are so easy to manipulate.

Your goal isn’t the highest profit percentage; it’s the highest final profit with happy parents and still-sane volunteers. And you reach those goals by working with the best reps and the best companies. (Here’s a column I wrote about the value of great fundraising sales reps a few years back.)

Good luck!

Posted in Fundraising

We are all so done with this winter! PTO Today Expo season is about to start and we are looking forward to seeing you at our March 10 Expo in Marlboro, Mass! Our founder Tim Sullivan has a little more to share about it in the quick video below. And if you haven't registered for one of our Expos yet, head over to our registration page

Posted in PTO Today Expo
We'd all agree that PTO and PTA leaders want parents to step up and join the board, right? Often, parents hesitate because they don't understand what the board does. So, pull the curtain back and let potential leaders really see what you do. Not sure how? Get some tips from our editor in chief Craig Bystrynski on making your board more open. 

Posted in Parent Involvement

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Before the end of the school year, many groups will hold elections that either will usher in a brand-new lineup of leaders or bring in a just a few new faces. Either way, it helps to take steps now to ensure that the transition to a new board goes smoothly. Here are some key questions to consider:

1. Where do you stand? If you are a board member now and your term isn’t up, have you taken the time to decide if you want to stay on? If you are excited about another year, that’s terrific! But if you’re ready to move on, it’s best to let your team know as soon as possible. 

2. Is your nominating committee busy? If not, give it a nudge. By now, the committee should be recruiting candidates and making plans to get the word out about the election. 

3. Is your board ready to tackle elections if there isn’t a nominating committee? At your next general meeting, start by talking to parents about the upcoming election and explain each board member’s job. Get the word out in other ways as well, including your group’s newsletter and social channels. 

4. Who’s likely to run? At this time, you should be aware of one or two folks who have expressed interest in running for office. Make yourself available to potential candidates by offering to answer questions, inviting them to sit in on an upcoming board meeting, or even asking them to shadow you at an upcoming event. Do what you can so they understand what goes into the job of a PTO leader. 

5. What’s on file? At your next board meeting, discuss how your group is doing in the record-keeping department. Are there up-to-date notes on committees and activities so new leaders will have the information they need to run a project next year? If not, set aside time now to gather the information you need. 

6. Are you staying positive? As we move into the final months of the year, it’s not hard to get stressed. Parent groups are busy with spring activities, teacher appreciation events, and end-of the-year celebrations. But what you don’t want is for for potential new leaders to see grumbling, stressed-out board members. Time permitting, invite candidate out for coffee and talk about your group’s accomplishments and the rewards of getting involved. Speak from the heart about why you have loved being a parent group leader. 

Here are some additional resources: 

5 Tips for Your Upcoming PTO or PTA Election 

Officer Transition: Planning Ahead

8 Tips for Passing the Gavel 

Posted in Parent Involvement

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Ever feel like there are just a few of you and your group is kind of barely surviving?

You are not alone. While there are certainly many thriving groups out there with lots of volunteers, the more typical group is like yours -- a few dedicated volunteers doing the best they can and getting tired and making mistakes.

The good news: You are likely still doing great work, and -- if you are not -- you certainly can.

We have this great new feature on small groups achieving big things. My simple advice to small groups is to tackle just one or two things and make them great. Whether it’s improving communication or making one signature event memorable -- start there. Tangible success is the best way to attract more volunteers, which will allow you to do even more. Those small groups that try to do too much and wind up with just so-so results (and completely overworked volunteers) have a really hard time attracting new blood.

Posted in Tim's Tip
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A comedian recently said he didn’t like it when people applauded at the end of a movie because they are basically clapping for the projector. Funny, I actually love it when people clap because it makes me feel like I’m part of a shared experience. For a brief moment, everyone is connected and agreeing that something was awesome. 

That shared-experience feeling is what makes Family Movie Nights such a great way for you to build a sense of community at your school. Gather up a bunch of parents and kids to watch something like Disney’s Frozen, and chances are there’ll be a sing-along of the film’s runaway hit song, Let It Go. Those moments help make a connection. Next time the parents see each other, say in the pickup line at school, they’ll say hello and maybe share a joke about the movie they watched together. That’s the start of a community. 

If you haven’t done a Family Movie Night before, consider trying one for the spring. Many groups take advantage of the nice weather by hosting an evening picnic or barbeque with outdoor activities, followed by a movie. It also works as an end-of-the-year event—a relaxed, final get-together before summer begins. 

We have a free Family Movie Night kit that includes tips for organizing events and many ideas on activities and snacks to help make the evening a success. The kit also has information on licensing a movie through Movie Licensing USA. 

Here are some additional resources to help you: 

Movie Night: It's a Smash Hit

Movie Night Tickets 

PTO Today Family Movie Night on Pinterest 

Have a fun event, and just my two cents: Clap as often as you want to.

Posted in Uncategorized

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Cold or warm, sun or snow -- no matter where you are these are the dog days of the school year, which makes this the perfect time for your group to play a key role in livening up the school climate and creating some fun to go along with the midwinter slog.

My favorite solution: School Family Nights. I use the capital letters there, because we have a bunch of great nights already planned with ideas and materials for you to borrow from and follow. Great nights like Family Game Night, Family Movie Night, Family Science Night, and more.

But you can also put together your own school family nights in any way you want. Get your school community together; get kids and parents interacting; have faculty and staff in the mix, too -- that's the good stuff. Is it a night at minor league hockey or a spaghetti supper or bowling? You name it. I loved this idea I saw recently where a school put on a Harry Potter Night

The best PTOs and PTAs are definitely not just about fundraising. And we also don't have to be all serious all the time. Fun events should be a core part of your mix, and our School Family Night kits (as well as the events you plan on your own) can make that happen. Have fun!

Posted in Parent Involvement

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A cake walk is a fun addition to school events. While many groups love giving away cakes, others substitute a variety of other treats like cupcakes or books to change it up.  But the basics of how to make this event work stay the same. Here are our tips for a successful cake walk!

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Posted in Family Events
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If you’re planning a spring auction, you may be feeling a little overloaded right now. Who wouldn’t? It’s a huge job.

We suggest you head over to the Ultimate Donation List, our Message Board thread dedicated to auction planning, tips, and ideas. The beauty of the Ultimate Donation List is it driven by volunteers who are running auctions. So you can get help from your peers (and offer them help, as well). We’ve seen a full range of topics covered, from how to craft donation letter to how to handle it when silent auction items don’t sell at an event. 

The Ultimate Donation List is also the place to go if you just need to sound off about the challenges of running an auction. We often observe folks boosting each other up, and that’s a great thing to see! 

We also want to point you to our other auction resources on the site. We have lots of helpful articles and downloadables that will give you tips on planning basics and ideas to make your event more fun. 

Here are some resources: 

5 Trends To Help Your Auction Shine

Auction Basket Names Sheet

Auction Action Plan

Auction Planning FAQs

112 Ideas for Auction Items

In addition, we are frequently adding to our auction boards on Pinterest. You’re sure to find inspiration here: 

Auction Tips and Ideas

Auction Baskets

Posted in Auctions

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I love email and how it's made life so much easier for PTO and PTA leaders. We can work and communicate from anywhere at any time, and we can involve so many more people thanks to email.

But I also know that email can exacerbate drama within a parent group and that avoiding PTO drama is a key to growing your group and doing good work. Drama-filled groups inevitably chase away good volunteers. So it's essential that we are careful with email.

I have two fundamental tips for avoiding email drama (and the same applies to texting). First, if you are in any way annoyed or angry or miffed -- please, please don't use email. Step away from the keyboard. Email lacks tone and tact. Critical or questioning emails are always read by the recipient more harshly than the sender intends. And that increases drama. If in doubt, don't type -- pause instead. And if you still need to question or criticize, call or visit the person.

Second, if you feel the need to be critical about someone else, never, ever do that via email. Assume that whatever you write will be read by your entire PTO or PTA, including the criticized. The “I saw your critical email” drama is about as bad as it gets for a PTO. 

As I said, I love email for PTOs (in fact, check out our free Parent Express email tool), but it's definitely worth a bit of care to use email correctly and avoid drama.

Posted in Parent Involvement

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With Read Across America Day around the corner, we wanted to share some fun program ideas you can do this spring to support literacy at your school.

1. Do an official Read Across America Day celebration. This year, Read Across America Day, which honors Dr. Seuss’ birthday, takes place on March 3. We created a new Read Across America Pinterest board to collect and share Dr. Seuss-theme ideas from a variety of pinners. If you need tips for creating Dr. Seuss costumes, photo booths, bulletin boards, writing prompts, or snacks, you’ll find them there. 

2. Hold a Family Reading Night. We offer a free Family Reading Night kit that you can download and use to plan an event that brings parents and kids together to focus on the importance of books and reading. There’s still time to hold one with a cozy winter theme. One idea: Invite children to attend in their pajamas and serve hot chocolate while adults read stories to kids. 

But you also can plan a fun reading night for the spring, or even an outdoor reading night at the end of the school year! You could set up your evening as a literacy camp on the school lawn. Parents bring tents and each tent has a book theme that kids can visit. In addition, a year-end reading night is a good way to promote summer reading. You would work with teachers to spotlight certain authors or books that will be part of the summer reading lists. 

3. Run a book drive or collection. Your group could ask parents and kids to donate gently used books for either the school library or other schools or children’s groups that are short on books. Another option: Run a book swap at the school so children can turn in a book and, in exchange, take a donated book. 

4. Hold a favorite book character parade. Ask teachers to help encourage students to dress up as their favorite book characters and then host a parade at the start of the school day. 

5. Organize a reading challenge this spring. We’ve written about groups that have successfully managed year-long and impressive programs, like the PTO at Grand Valley Elementary in Orwell, Ohio, which helped its school read for 2 million minutes! 

A scaled-down version, say a challenge to read 200,000 minutes, could be done for the spring. (Doing the math, if a school of 500 kids read 15 minutes a day for a month, that would be 225,000 minutes!)

Posted in Uncategorized

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This post was written by Gwen Pescatore, a PTO president, mom of three, and comoderator of  #PTchat

Like most parent groups, we’re always looking for ways to get resources to our parents. At Knapp Elementary, one thing we’ve had lots of success with is our one-day conference that we call ParentCamp.

The conference is a way to provide lots of helpful information to parents at one time. It then supports ongoing conversations as parents and educators revisit these topics throughout a school year. 

The goal is to bring families and educators together to engage in informal conversations that will help everyone learn and discover how to better support our kids. We think it’s really empowering to use the “unconference” approach (group discussions, not lectures) so people can exchange ideas as equals and really build relationships. 

Here’s how we’ve made our ParentCamps successful. 

First steps:
We start by considering what information we want to get to our community. We discover hot topics from talking to parents and teachers and by staying in touch with people on a regular basis. That helps us set up sessions that we know will be meaningful to parents and educators. The number of sessions can vary; in our book, it’s better to have three sessions that are really informative than 20 that are so-so. 

To date, our most popular sessions have been Future of STEM Careers, Navigating IEPs, Supporting Your Gifted Student, Paying for College, Communicating with Your Child, Transitioning into or out of Elementary School, and any technology or social media sessions. 

Conference details:
Once we have our topics lined up, we think about who would be best to lead the session. We think it’s important that each information session is informal and encourages attendees to share. So we look for session leaders who are not just experts but also good facilitators. It’s key that the leaders are able to create the actual content structure for the session and that attendees contribute information and ideas. 

To find good session leaders, we reach out to local colleges, libraries, police departments, preschools, and businesses. We’ve had luck with local gyms, financial advisers, and pharmaceutical and tech companies. Keep in mind that students and parents also can make great speakers. 

We also make sure to provide information on a variety of topics so parents and teachers will come away feeling like they’ve learned about a range of education issues. 

We schedule each session for about 40 minutes so we don’t overload people with information.

Keep it low-key: 
We make ParentCamp a relaxed day by keeping the atmosphere casual and interactive, providing a breakfast, and offering childcare to make it easy for parents to attend. At the end of the day, we hold a closing “smack down,” a time when the group reconvenes and shares takeaways from the day. 

Paying the bills:
Putting on a ParentCamp doesn’t cost a ton of money, but you may need funds to cover a keynote address (if you get a big name) and food. So we have had businesses sponsor our events. It’s a great way to cover expenses so parents, teachers, and other attendees don’t have to pay. We found this pretty easy to do. We simply reached out to our community and businesses we had worked with in the past and asked for help. 

Our ParentCamps have not only energized parents, but they have also built and strengthened relationships with our community and neighboring school districts. ParentCamps are great way to bring all stakeholders to the table so all involved parties have a voice in how to best support our kids. 

For more information, visit the ParentCamp website. 

 

Posted in Parent Involvement

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Last week, we shared our thoughts on why many parents don't volunteer. In some cases, it's simply because they haven't been asked. Ouch! So, this week we wanted to share why parents do volunteer. Keeping things upbeat!

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Posted in Parent Involvement

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Sure, plenty of PTOs and PTAs are ready for Valentine’s Day—some have been for weeks. But if you are one of those people who tends to wait until the last minute, we say to you: No worries and no shame. We have a Valentine’s Day action plan for you.

1. Start by taking a quick look at our Valentine’s Day board on Pinterest. We have more than 100 pins on this board, and the majority are straightforward and easy-to-do craft and snack ideas. One of our favorites is a Valentine’s Day bird feeder. All you need is bird seed, plain gelatin, water, twine, and large heart-shaped cookie cutters. Mix the seed with the water and gelatin, and shape with cookie cutter. Thread twine through the top of the hearts. Let them dry and then hang them in trees. 

2. If you are helping out at a classroom party, go to our new sister site, HomeroomMom.com. You’ll find ideas for crafts and activities that work well for groups. They are quick to put together and require only basic materials like red paint, pipe cleaners, and pom-poms. The selection of Valentine’s Day ideas includes thumbprint heart bookmarks, a handprint heart tree, and popsicle stick picture frames. 

3. If you don’t want to do crafts, there’s still time to do a simple Valentine’s Day project to support the community. Our article “7 Fun Valentine’s Day Ideas” has good suggestions, including a valentines for seniors project. Ask the teachers if you and a few volunteers could host a group of older students during a recess period this week to make the cards. Then deliver them to a local senior center next week. 

4. Want to make sure teachers and staff get a little nod on Valentine’s Day? You can’t go wrong with love notes. Ask students to write a quick note about a teacher or staff member. You can collect them and put them in a pretty box, jar, or envelope to present to the recipient. To save time, get our free Valentine’s Day love note template from our File Exchange.

5. Finally, you can quickly add a little splash to any note, email, or social post without having to spend extra money or time by using our free Valentine’s Day clip art

Posted in Just For Fun

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Our February 2015 issue of PTO Today is all about school spirit, a topic we know is one of your favorites! PTOs and PTAs can play a key role in promoting school spirit and we have lots of new resources to help you do that. 

Sometimes schools hold events that are well-attended and seemingly hit all the marks, but there’s that sense that something is missing. When schools and parent groups take the time to welcome everyone, generate excitement, and communicate a sense of unity and common identity, then something bigger happens. A true school community is created.

Here are our new resources to help you boost school spirit:

1. Need a new idea to get parents, kids, and teachers working toward a common goal? Read our just-published article, 10 Ideas for Building Spirit at Your School

2. How about some basic tips on bringing the whole school community together? Our piece on building community offers you five ways to do that. 

3. If you are creating flyers, sending emails, or posting information on Facebook to get your community pumped about spirit day events, try our new spirit day clip art on the Clip Art Gallery.

4. How about a new, fresh idea for a spirit day? We have 30 of them in this free downloadable on our File Exchange.

5. For those of you needing tips for selling spiritwear, the February 2015 issue also has an article with great tips on that. 

6. In addition, we have a new spiritwear order form you can download and use as a template.
Posted in Bright Ideas

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Yes, it's OK to have a school event with no kids. In fact, I highly recommend it.

I think of PTOs and PTAs as communities of parents that help create the entire atmosphere around a school. Parent connections grow involvement and are also invaluable during tough times, so it's entirely appropriate for your group to hold events that foster those adult relationships.

It might be a restaurant night (have you seen our new sister site, Restaurant-Fundraisers.com?) or an annual dinner-dance at the Elks club or anything else. The group at my kids' school hosts a "college party" at a local place with karaoke and more shenanigans. It's a lot of fun, and school friendships (for adults) are made and extended. And that's the point.  

What kind of adult tradition can you build? We have some great resources for this type of event, including flyers for moms night out, dads night out, and parents night out. And we'd love to hear what you've come up with on our Facebook page. Above all else -- have fun! 

Posted in Parent Involvement

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It's really the $10,000 Question: Why is it that some folks just don't want to volunteer? 

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Posted in Parent Involvement

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Talent shows are a great part of the school experience for both kids and their parents. If you have a chance to help out with one, we say go for it.

But let’s be straight with each other. Helping with the talent show is one of those odd experiences in life. At least some of the time you are doing it, you will wish you were anywhere else in the world. I mean, how many times can anyone be subjected to Taylor Swift lip-syncing acts before feeling a little unhinged. But then in the end, when you see how happy the kids are (not to mention their parents), you will be thrilled that you experienced it. 

So if you’re helping run a spring talent show, the best advice we can give is to start planning now. The key to talent shows is to stay organized. If you are juggling a few dozen acts and dozens of kids, along with parent requests, logistics, and sponsors, you need to stay on top of things. 

Try to get a few key helpers who can work closely with you. Best case, divvy up key responsibilities among a core group of volunteers so no one person is stuck handling too much. Ask around or send out a survey to find out if there are parents within your community with special talents who can help. There are usually some parents who have spent time in community theater or have expertise in music or publicity, or can lend their skills with costumes or set decorations. 

Some other tips: 

1. Get as many children involved in the talent show as possible. There will be students who want no part in performing. But there are many jobs, from program designers and backstage helpers, that you can give to students. 

2. Try to get support from the principal and teachers. If possible, have them swing by a rehearsal every now and then so students understand that the talent show is a school event and they should work to make the school proud. 

3. But remember, they are kids and no one should expect perfect performances. Encourage students to have fun and relax.

4. Decide early on if you want to sell tickets, do a raffle, or have concession stands. Often, a talent show is a good time to find ways to raise a few extra dollars for your group. 

5. Check out the PTO Today resources on talent shows for additional help, including our article, Stage a Successful Talent Show, and our free talent show downloadables on the File Exchange that can be used to create flyers, permission slips, and programs.

Posted in Family Events