A Key To Avoiding PTO Burnout: Take a Breather

Remembering to give yourself a break is essential to the long-term success of your group.

by Tim Sullivan


I wrote a weekly email tip for nearly 15 years, and I was surprised when perhaps my simplest tip ever elicited a ton of response. My advice had nothing to do with fundraising or how to deal with a principal, nor did I offer a magic solution for bringing the masses to your meetings.

Instead, my advice to PTO and PTA leaders was simply this: Breathe.

Take deep breaths. Slow down. Give yourself a break, both physically and mentally. It’s essential both for your own long-term health and success and for that of your group.

All the know-how you need to be an effective and successful parent group leader!

The vast majority of parent group leaders I’ve met over the years can be described very well with two words: “dedicated” and “harried.” The first one is a testament to the passion and generosity of volunteers, but the second one can often be our downfall. We want the school and the kids to have everything under the sun. We want all of our events to go off flawlessly. And we hate to say no to any request or new idea. That’s commendable, but we can be so dedicated and so passionate that we don’t realize our pace and our worry are doing harm.

Every one of us who has argued with a spouse over the demands that volunteering creates on our time knows that this drive to pitch in can cause personal stress. You can only do so much, and that’s OK. No one, not a single person, wants you to sacrifice your family for the PTO cause. You, your family, and your group and school will be better served having a manageable amount of you for three years rather than all of you for just five months.

You don’t have to be Superwoman or Superman.

Did you know that too much dedication can actually cause harm to your group as a whole? I go back to that descriptor, “harried.” One of the biggest challenges for most parent groups is recruiting new officers and adding to the roster of leaders. If your current, relatively small group of leaders is always harried (overstressed and constantly scrambling), then you could end up having a very hard time getting newcomers to jump onboard into leadership roles.

These days, most people aren’t really dying to find more ways to add stress and craziness to their lives. You might tell recruits that the job isn’t too hard, but they have eyes. They’ve attended your school events. They’ve watched you at meetings and around school. If it seems that the leadership job at your school involves either never being home or dealing with never-ending parent group calls, they are going to find ways to stay away from your group. All of your dedication will actually work against your long-term involvement goals.

Want some perspective? Imagine, heaven forbid, that your child got sick or you had to rush off to take care of a relative in need. Would the school fall down without you? Would there never be another family event or teacher appreciation luncheon?

Your school and your PTO existed long before you arrived, and they both will go on for decades after you leave. Your contributions are valuable and greatly appreciated, but it’s fine to make those contributions in a balanced manner. In fact, it’s the best way for your group to thrive for the long haul.

Make it a mission to give the green light only to those efforts that you can pull off well, with the leaders you currently have working reasonably. If that means canceling an event or saying no to a request, that’s OK. Again, the school will remain standing.

New leaders will emerge when they know the group is run well and the job isn’t too intimidating. With enough new leaders, you can even add events or start saying yes to more requests.

Take those deep breaths without guilt. You and your group will be much better for it.

Originally published in 2012 and updated regularly.

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