Sometimes it's more important to know what not to do. We outline 12 common mistakes PTOs make and offer positive alternatives.

by Angela Chastain


Many parent group leaders feel a sense of nervous excitement as they anticipate the beginning of a new school year, just like their kids. If you’re one of them, you may be looking forward to fun family events and major projects, but be worried about how everything will turn out.

Relax. It’s OK if an event doesn’t come off perfectly. What matters most is that parents feel welcome at school and find ways to support their child’s education. You can get the year off to a strong start by keeping in mind these tips for effective parent group leadership.

Don’t jump in without talking to the principal.

Just as you wouldn’t appreciate the school principal planning events for the PTO or acting as its designated spokesman, the principal doesn’t want to feel like the PTO is taking over his school. Working with the principal should be a partnership based on trust and respect. Discuss your plans and ask for approval on dates, fundraisers, and notes sent home with students. Remember, everything the PTO does directly reflects on and affects the school, and thus the principal. Principals can often serve as a sounding board to evaluate ideas or as a neutral party in disagreements. Show your principal you value his perspective.

Don’t give the impression that your group is just about fundraising.

Although fundraising is essential for parent groups, it’s not the main focus. Make your first communication with parents about involvement, not fundraising. Hold a free family event during the first few weeks of school, like a kickoff picnic or ice-cream social, to put the focus on having fun and building friendships. Plan some curriculum-related events, like a math and science night or a reading challenge. Try to keep the number of fundraisers you run to a minimum, and be sure to communicate to parents how the profits benefit students.

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

Don’t get off on the wrong foot with teachers.

Teachers are supportive of most parent group efforts, but PTOs often ask a lot from them (like distributing flyers, collecting forms, and making classroom auction items). Do what you can to minimize teachers’ PTO-related tasks, and be sure to give back. A little preemptive teacher appreciation goes a long way! Holding a beginning-of-the-year breakfast or lunch shows teachers you’re all working together before you ask for their help. Thank-you notes or small tokens of appreciation placed in mailboxes throughout the year remind teachers that you aren’t taking them for granted.

Don’t turn people off the first time they come to a meeting.

You only get one opportunity to make a first impression. Make sure each person who comes to a meeting is greeted warmly, whether you do it yourself or recruit a few helpers. Keep the meeting brief by sticking to the agenda and avoiding side conversations. Show that you value input by acknowledging comments and suggestions. Don’t come back with “We tried that and it doesn’t work.” Thank everyone for coming, and thank them again when you email the meeting minutes.

Don’t let people think your group is all about drudgery.

It’s easier to get volunteers when you show you’re accomplishing a task and having fun, too! Share photos of smiling parent volunteers in school newsletters and on the PTO bulletin board. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by calling the local newspaper to cover volunteers at an event. Getting the word out that the PTO is fun will do wonders for your volunteer numbers.

Don’t assume people will get involved because you put a “we need volunteers” notice in your newsletter.

The best way to recruit volunteers is to reach out to parents personally. This can be as simple as staffing a table at “meet the teacher” events or as involved as a phone tree. People who are interested in volunteering sometimes need a little nudge of encouragement. Having a friendly face on the other side of the table or a warm voice on the other end of the phone gives them an opportunity to ask questions and get reassurance. Be sure to thank parents for their interest and to follow up frequently.

Don’t dismiss new ideas.

Sure, you’re filled with ideas for the upcoming school year, but that doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t have a better idea. Stay open to suggestions from all members, new and returning. Parent groups are all about teamwork.

Don’t be afraid to be a leader.

There will be times when you have to pull rank. Not every idea is a good idea, and you don’t have an endless supply of volunteers or money. Sometimes you have to say no. Ask yourself whether the proposed action will take the parent group in the right direction to accomplish its goals. If it won’t, find another opportunity that will.

Don’t forget that family comes first.

It’s easy to get caught up in making phone calls, responding to emails, creating flyers, and managing databases. However, neglecting your family in the process is counterproductive. After all, didn’t you volunteer to spend time with your children and enhance their edu?cational experience? Keeping a healthy balance between your family and volunteer work also slows burnout. If you’re constantly missing your child’s ball games or dance recitals, it won’t be long until you’ve had enough.

Don’t make assumptions based on what you’ve heard from your predecessor.

With the best of intentions, your predecessor may attempt to fill you in about certain volunteers, the principal, or other school staff members. Take this information lightly, or excuse yourself from it altogether. Different personalities and leadership styles bring out different attributes in everyone. Someone who didn’t work well with past leaders may react totally differently to the group under your direction. Give everyone a fair chance.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Just because you volunteered to be the parent group leader doesn’t mean that you have to do everything yourself. Be sure to delegate tasks, ask for event chairpeople, allow officers to do their jobs, and limit micromanaging. A parent group leader who decides she has to organize every event, copy every flyer, and lead the group will quickly burn out.

Don’t forget what you’re doing all this for.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Petty arguments cloud judgments and create hard feelings. Does it really matter if the Halloween dance decorations are red and gold or black and yellow? Remain focused on the big picture and stay true to your mission.


# patricia johnson 2013-06-20 01:39
I have a question, I was elected to be the PTA president for the years 2013 and 2014, I want to know who should have the key to the PTA room at your school? It was brought up at our last PTA meeting for the year. I'm not sure so I'm asking.

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