It all started over the playground. Like kids picking sides and calling names, PTO parents at a certain elementary school had their own playground struggles. Only theirs was not over a contentious game of dodgeball; it was that they couldn’t agree on whether to help the school district pay to build an elaborate new playground. The plans had been made before the PTO was involved with the project, and not everyone was enthusiastic. About half the membership wanted to use PTO money to help fund it. The other half hesitated, mostly because of the cost.
Sally, a PTO parent, started her own Facebook page. It had the school’s name in the title but wasn’t sponsored by the school or the PTO. Anyone could “like” the page. Some unhappy PTO members—including Pam, a prominent officer—used the Facebook page as a forum to discuss their frustrations and to make comments about those who didn’t support donating money to the project.
Next, Pam bullied her way over the PTO president’s head to the principal and then to the superintendent of the school district to try to force the PTO to donate the money—even though the district administrators had no authority over the PTO and could do nothing about it.
People on both sides were up in arms. The discord ultimately resulted in Pam resigning out of frustration early in the school year.
Remember the Children
Controversies like this true story crop up in many parent groups. One side is pitted against another. Instead of focusing on the many things they agree on, members focus only on the disagreement. No matter which way the dispute is eventually resolved, the group becomes splintered and less effective. Involvement declines.
It could happen more easily than most people imagine, says Michael McKee, a clinical research psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio who has consulted with several school districts during his 40 years of practice. He says we live in a competitive society where many people with strong personalities want to have their idea “win” no matter what group setting, and they will go to great lengths to be heard, including using various forms of bullying.
“I think it’s really helpful whenever you have a [major problem] to step back and acknowledge the mission of the group,” McKee says. “It’s about the kids. So the best way to help the kids is to check egos at the door.”
Is it possible? Virginia C. Ballard, PTO president at Roberts Elementary in Houston, says yes. She believes a no-nonsense attitude helps. “I don’t get involved in any of the cliques and personality issues,” she says. Ballard stays away from insider talk. That way, she feels she’s able to make more objective decisions that keep students’ needs at the forefront.
Like most leaders, Ballard sometimes has to make tough calls in the best interest of the entire group. For example, she recently let the committee chairperson of an important school event know that her friend, who was being groomed to take the spot, wasn’t a good fit. The friend was organized and intelligent and had experience on the committee, but she was also notoriously volatile and unfriendly. Plus, the same volunteers had run the event for years, and Ballard wanted to inject new energy and ideas.
She proposed having someone new take the post. That did not sit easy with the current chair, who demanded a meeting with her. Ballard agreed and decided going into it that honesty would be best.
“The bottom line is that [the friend] didn’t get along well with people. So I thought, I’m just going to be honest and say it,” she says, adding that she was nervous about the forthright conversation. “I laid it out there and said that her friend was so very difficult to work with and that’s not what I wanted in a chair. I told her that perhaps as her friend, she could help [the friend] learn to be a little more relaxed and easygoing....Interestingly, it seemed that being straightforward with [the current chair] really let the air out of a very tense situation. She was mad at first, but when I was candid with her, it really changed things....I nipped it in the bud.” In the end, the event turned out “absolutely fantastic,” Ballard says.
Communicate Early and Often
Honesty like Ballard’s is crucial for keeping strong personalities in check and encourages effective communication in the PTO, according to McKee. It also is key to preventing most problems among the board and committee chairpeople as well as the general membership. Another part of effective communication is keeping everyone regularly informed of the latest PTO happenings. “It’s a universal problem where people in a group feel like they aren’t getting enough information,” McKee says. “It’s almost impossible to give too much information.”
As the group leader, it’s important to disclose information to everyone, suggests McKee, even if it’s just summarizing a conversation with another committee member in relation to what’s being done to benefit the students. Communicating well with the whole group helps keep insider talk at bay. In addition, regularly updating the general membership through newsletters, email blasts, website updates, blogs, school bulletin boards, and social media like Facebook and Twitter keeps members engaged.
Social media can become an opinion free-for-all and deteriorate into cyberbullying, however. So McKee recommends using it only to report facts and having it moderated by a trusted member to keep it that way. The facts-only approach can also be helpful in email blasts, blog posts, and website updates. It’s useful to periodically remind people of the purpose of the particular communication method being used.
At Pequea Elementary in Willow Street, Pa., the PTO keeps its members informed via blog. Although comments can be posted on the blog, the school principal moderates the activity. So far it has been encouraging, with comments often coming from the children, says PTO president Dahlia Ferko.
Blog updates are duplicated on Facebook. For PTO members who have Facebook accounts, all they need to do is “like” Pequea Elementary. The Facebook page is locked as “post only,” so there are no open discussions—just news. “We have a lot of moms who rely on that. They go on Facebook and that’s how they get their [school] updates,” Ferko says. What’s more, the school provides text updates to parents’ cell phones. All parents have to do is text a specific number to sign up for the updates.
Similarly, facts are all that are mentioned on the Twitter page of Wescott Elementary in Northbrook, Ill., and in its email blasts. “We don’t have a Facebook page....I don’t overdo our Twitter account and only post when really important things are happening,” says PTO president Carolyn Spero, adding that it’s always PTO-related and never personal. “We have to make sure the information we’re sending is not skewed as coming from an individual as opposed to the organization.”
However a PTO chooses to be in touch, McKee suggests reminding members about the children and the benefits they receive from their parents’ volunteer work. “Even if it’s posting pictures of the kids with the information, it helps bring home the notion ‘It’s not about us; it’s about them,’” he says.
Listen and Learn
Hearing what members have to say and allowing them to express themselves is another key to a harmonious PTO. While social media may not be the best way to meet that end, conducting a survey of parents to get feedback about programs or policies can be effective. That’s exactly what the Wescott Elementary PTO did. They discovered that parents thought there were too many meetings. So the PTO changed the schedule for general meetings to every other month, while the executive board continued to meet monthly. The survey also revealed that many parents were unhappy with meetings held during the morning hours, so the PTO now holds some in the morning, some in the afternoon before pickup, and some in the evening.
The changes have been positive, Spero says. Before the survey, “I think people were frustrated and felt like they weren’t being heard,” she says. “I feel like if we’re offering them an option, it helps.”
Likewise, at Roberts Elementary in Houston, PTO members’ voices are heard. While meetings are typically kept to one hour, there is always room for more conversation about important topics. For instance, a student safety issue was brought up at the general meeting and Ballard knew it needed more discussion. She suggested forming a committee to work on the issue. A few weeks later she met with people who were interested, when they had the time and energy to focus on working toward a solution.
An open mind always helps, asserts Ferko, who adds that her PTO’s philosophy is to be open to all ideas, encourage feedback, and be transparent about all happenings at meetings. “We really try hard to integrate everyone’s ideas in what we’re doing,” she says. “More minds bring different ideas and a different way of thinking because sometimes the way you think [as a leader] may not be the way to go.” Along those lines, Ferko’s PTO posts meeting agendas on the school blog and has plans to add more information, including the budget and treasurer’s reports.
There are times when it can be difficult to incorporate others’ ideas because those ideas may not work to benefit the school or the PTO. When that happens, Ferko says her PTO brainstorms to try to use at least a part of the new idea.
Another option is allowing people to voice their opinions, but as the leader restating the goal and why exactly it may not work, then being at peace with your decision, Ballard suggests.
Spero agrees and says that members “may not always agree with our [answer], but I think they really want to be sure their voices are heard.”
Make It Welcoming...and Fun
Whether in the form of light snacks or a potluck meal at meetings, food has a way of bringing people together, easing tension, and promoting conversation. At Roberts Elementary, breakfast items are available at most morning meetings. “We get food donated by groups who want to get in front of the PTO, like Chick-fil-A [restaurant], local realtors, and a coffee roaster,” Ballard says. “I think that helps.”
At Wescott Elementary, the first meeting of the year is a welcome back breakfast with coffee and bagels. It starts with 30 minutes of social time to greet new members before business gets under way.
Besides refreshments, at monthly Pequea PTO meetings Ferko warms up the school library with decorations and tablecloths as well as distributing paper and pencils. “We are a very relaxed group. I think that makes it pretty fun,” she says.
Where a meeting is located can be critical to the communication that transpires. While the school is the ideal place for most groups, holding a board meeting at a member’s home from time to time can allow for a more casual, friendly, and open setting, according to McKee. “The whole atmosphere is different,” he says. This works if the group is cohesive. On the flip side, if there is significant friction within the board, then a more neutral spot like the school most likely will work better, McKee says.
Finally, thanking volunteers and offering compliments about their hard work helps boost their spirits and can keep everyone motivated. In addition to giving handwritten thank-you notes to its volunteers, Pequea Elementary PTO puts together an end-of-year thank-you dinner.
“Everyone likes personal stroking....Sometimes that could mean a conference call or individual calls by the leader,” McKee says, adding that thanking specific individuals in front of members at a general meeting is also a good idea.
The bottom line in keeping the peace within the PTO, he says, is understanding and empathy. “It’s a very diverse world, and we have to respect the different points of view when we’re in a group.”
3 Keys to a Happy, Harmonious PTO
Honesty: Although it can be tough to be honest, it’s crucial for preventing further problems, according to psychologist Michael McKee. “You have to tell people what they don’t want to hear sometimes.”
Humility: This helps others know you’re only human. For example, a leader might say, “You’re probably better at [the task] than I am, so why don’t you take it on, study it, and get back to us?” Along the same lines, McKee says, feel free to give compliments on a regular basis.
Humor: If used tactfully, humor can help a tense situation. “The problem with a PTO is you can’t easily fire members [because they’re volunteers],” he says. “So you have to put a lot of energy into diffusing tension. It doesn’t mean you have to please everyone, but you can definitely lighten things up with humor.”