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Get the Principal on Your Side

The right—and wrong—ways to build communication with school administrators.
by Evelyn Beck

Way back when, getting sent to the office meant you were in trouble. BIG trouble. Maybe even trouble solved only by a paddle wielded by the scariest person on campus: the principal. While discipline is only one of many issues dealt with by today's school leaders, that image of the big, bad principal continues to haunt some adults. "I still have parents very timid about coming in to the office, even if I just ask, 'Is the homework hotline going OK?' or 'How's Billy doing in soccer?' " says Alfonso Angelucci, principal of North Side and Walnut Ridge elementary schools in Ellwood City, Pa. "It goes back to their experience as a student."

For PTO officers, especially presidents, developing a good relationship with their principal is key to a successful year. They must learn not to feel intimidated, no matter what bad memories they harbor from their own childhoods and no matter what sort of personality their principal has. They must be strong and assertive, yet respectful of the principal's authority. As they seek to work together for the benefit of the school and its children, they must also balance being a good and frequent communicator without becoming a nuisance. We asked several principals for advice on the best way for parent group leaders to approach them.

"It's important to start off on a positive note," Angelucci says. "You never want to go in in attack mode with anybody. You might go in and thank the principal for his or her support, maybe in some fundraising effort or to spread the word to teachers about how important something was or how they kicked something off in an assembly." Then focus on the principal's expertise, his passions or pet projects in an area such as curriculum, budget, or public relations. You might break the ice by asking the principal to speak to the PTO on this topic. "You're already going in with something the principal is comfortable with," says Angelucci.

Even if you meet resistance, continue trying to involve the principal in school functions, from fundraising to family nights. "I know a lot of principals are hesitant or reluctant, but it's important for parents not to give up, to keep asking," Angelucci says. "Just because principals say no doesn't mean they don't want to come or that it's not important. They just might be putting their personal matters ahead at that time. They do have families and can't come to every night activity. If the principal won't sit in the dunk tank, find some other way in which he is more comfortable helping the PTO. But always ask like this: 'I know it's your personal time and your free time, but we'd really appreciate it if you could...' "

Keep the principal informed. Many PTO presidents email the principal a meeting agenda in advance to be sure that all necessary issues are included and that the principal is aware of what will be covered. Many principals also prefer that other material, such as correspondence and newsletters, go to them for a thumbs-up before being disseminated.

"Even with the information that is generated by the PTO and goes home through the children of the school, there's a perception by many parents that the principal has OK'd and supports this," says Anthony Cipro, principal of Florence G. Houghton Elementary School in Sterling, Mass. That's why Cipro asks the PTO president to run everything by him, not so he can approve or disapprove things but so he can spot errors such as incorrect dates and misspellings. "We want information that goes out to be spick-and-span, accurate, clearly expressed, and to convey a professional message to parents regardless of who the author is," he says.

And be sure to allow enough time for feedback. "Give me facts and details and time to process it," says Kathy McCarty, principal of David W. Dennis Middle School in Richmond, Ind. For example, her PTO president came to her soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August with a request to raise money for victims, saying, "This is what we'd like to do. Can we do this next week? Will it work in your schedule?"

That kind of early alert is crucial. Let your principal know about potential problems before a PTO meeting so she can be prepared to answer questions. No one likes to feel blindsided. "Be that parent the principal can trust to come to him or her," Angelucci says, "to let you know there's a problem, that you're probably going to get some questions about this at the meeting, so you might want to prepare ways we can improve it. I really appreciate that. Like I tell my teachers, I don't like to be the last to know about something." McCarty agrees, citing the great communication at her own school, where, she says, "I know what's happening before it happens."

In a positive, friendly way, remind your principal that the PTO has some things that she might not, including time and money. Cipro offers two examples of how to get this point across to your principal: "Say, 'We've noticed from reading the newspaper that budgets are cut, and we are hearing that you like to have kids have special programs that come into the school or field trips, and you don't have the money to do that. What do you think about these ways of helping you get what you want?' Or 'You indicated in the school improvement plan that you have a goal to increase the number of books in the library. What if we run the book fair for you and put all the money toward the purchase of additional library books to supplement the local budget so you can reach the target you want to reach?' "

Perhaps nothing beats compliments for motivation. Catch the principal doing something effective, and then let him know. Cipro suggests saying something like this to your principal as a starting point for teamwork: "When you gave that presentation to incoming parents of kindergarten kids and referred to them as your kids, that's a real good message to send to parents. The message I get is that you really care about kids, and so do we as parents. So how can we help our kids by working together?" Everyone welcomes praise, he adds. "If there is a function that goes well or a talk that went well or a position that the principal took that you appreciate, then make a phone call or approach the principal in person or send an email saying 'I just want you to know that I attended that program, and it was terrific.' Everyone likes an occasional pat on the back."

Even better is to compliment the principal in front of others. "A public thank-you is a rare occurrence for a principal," Angelucci says. "Showing up at a board meeting to say 'You've got a good guy or gal in this principal,' to support the school and parent partnerships—not to complain—that goes a long way. Parents can get a lot of mileage out of that. It shows the principal that parents are noticing the hard work he or she is putting in."

And if you do have cause for criticism, temper it with praise. For instance, perhaps your principal isn't very sociable. In a private meeting, Angelucci suggests, the PTO member might say, "This is something you might want to consider. I have heard from parents a concern that they don't see you being very visible. We know you're very busy, how much work you have to do. We see your car here early in the morning and late at night. But it might help with management (or discipline or dismissal) problems if we could just talk to you informally sometimes at the bus ramp.' That's pretty tough, though. You've got to know your principal."

Whatever your dissatisfaction or frustration, never deliver your requests as if you're placing an order. "Avoid putting the principal on the defensive," Cipro advises. "It's not a question of power. It's a question of people finding a way to help the little people at the school. Ask questions of your principal; don't make demands. Ask 'What would you like us to do?' or 'What can we do for you and your school?' " When you hear others complain, especially in public, stick up for your school. "At Little League, at soccer, at the grocery store, you'll hear parents tearing down the school or the principal because of some initiative [the school is] starting," says Angelucci. "It's important for the PTO, especially the board, to stick up for the school. That kind of negativity doesn't do anything." And don't spread any rumors yourself. If you have a concern, get the facts, and get them from the source. "Principals appreciate it when someone comes right to them and says, 'This is what I've heard, and I want to hear from you what the facts are,'&nsbp;" says Angelucci.

If you have a problem, suggest a possible way to solve it. Then write it down. Then present it to the principal orally as part of a group to show that the problem is not limited to one parent, adds Angelucci, who suggests saying, "I respect the procedure you're using for this, Ms. or Mr. Principal, but I just wanted you to take into consideration these other suggestions." At C.J. Hicks Elementary School in Conyers, Ga., Principal Katrina Mallory agrees that proposing solutions—in writing—is an effective approach. She cites her school's current debate about uniforms as an example of how she likes to see problems resolved: Committees made up of parents will research the pros and cons of mandatory uniforms, then present their findings at several PTA meetings before a vote is taken.

If you're getting nowhere in resolving an issue, resist going over the principal's head, because that creates a negative environment and will make the principal defensive. "If you really want to get to the bottom of an issue, work on it cooperatively," Angelucci says. "If that doesn't work, let the principal know, as a PTO board, 'We don't think this is working out quite the way we want or need it to help our kids. We don't want to go to the superintendent but may ask him or her to come in to the next meeting so we can possibly iron this out.' " Another alternative is to meet privately with the superintendent to ask for suggestions in dealing more effectively with your principal—but do so only as a last resort.

While some principals present greater challenges than others, concerted efforts to break down their defenses can have an impact. Three weeks after Cipro and his PTO officers gave some advice in a presentation at a PTO Today conference in March, one of his co-presenters received an email that said, "I did everything Cipro said to do, and my principal is a totally different person now and very receptive."

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  1. Posted by - Sad Mom on Nov. 09, 2010

    Part 3 of 3

    2 days later, just 2 hours before the PTO meeting, the principal informs the PTO president that she expects the PTO to donate the dolls! Broadside #2. Like the PTO could say "no" at that point, even though it mean money was being lost from some other area that the money could have been better used in.

    And the administrative assistant? She has a tendency to talk down to parents, be abrasive to PTO members, throw temper tantrums over perceived slights, and yes, she has YELLED at PTO members when they have tried to smooth things over with her.

    How in the heck do we work with this? Our next PTO meeting is coming up, and I'm expecting to be broadsided again.
  2. Posted by - Sad Mom on Nov. 09, 2010

    (Part 2 of 3)

    So anyway...big bru-ha-ha, parents complained, principal mostly ignored their concerns. New name was picked via student vote. The name has VERY obvious sexual innuendo. As in, the name is very close to the name of a national sexually oriented restaurant, and our mascot is the same animal as that business' mascot. GREAT.

    As a "compromise" (that no one with concerns about loosing the original mascot was part of developing), it was decided that the original mascot could stay in the form of a small stuffed doll in each classroom (but hey, wasn't sexual innuendo a problem? Then why keep the original mascot in any form? Getting rid of him is starting to seem more and more like "territory marking" for the principal). Announcement is made to the kids at an assembly so they are happy because they are "keeping" their mascot. Never mind that I believe all the dolls will disappear this coming summer. Announcement is sent home to all the parents about the "compromise."

    (to be cont.)
  3. Posted by - Sad Mom on Nov. 09, 2010

    Due to the opening of a new elem school in our district (where our beloved principal was transferred to), we got a new principal in our school this year...and OUCH...to add to the fun, she came with her own administrative assistant.

    The article said No one likes to feel blindsided.

    Well what do you do when the principal is the one blindsiding the PTO? At the first PTO meeting of the year she came to the meeting an announced that she would be changing the name of the mascot "because she had heard people didn't like it." Blindside #1.

    Parents I've talked to have never heard anything like that. There was no discussion at the meeting, just an announcement. There was a suggestion later that the name might have some sexual innuendo and thus needed to go...which, again...parents needed to have this explained to them before they understood what sexual meaning there could possibly be in the mascot's name.

    (to be continued...)
  4. Posted by - Dawn Denny on Oct. 24, 2010

    Question: We have a seven school elem system. This year, one of the seven principals has started to run the Executive PTO meetings, and even sets the agenda. How would you suggest to her that it's our role to run the meeting, and set the agenda, without offending her? None of the other six principals do this.

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