Although the word “partnership” suggests equality, parent group leaders don’t always feel like partners when they deal with the school principal. When the relationship is problematic, parent groups struggle to achieve their goals, even though in many cases those goals mirror the principal’s. But if the goals are the same—providing the best education possible for all students—then why are the ptotoday.com message boards continuously filled with complaints about the “principal from hell”?

An overwhelming amount of research shows that principals and parents need to cultivate a relationship with one another if they are to succeed. Perhaps the key lies in recognizing and appreciating both viewpoints.

The first step to a healthier relationship is to remember an adage from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Although the burden of the relationship is not entirely on you as the parent group leader, you can set the stage by being proactive. Making the first move to understand the possible issues for the principal will put you in a much better position to be a good partner.

From the principal’s perch, everything that goes on in the school is her responsibility. From the physical plant to the activities that go on inside it, no detail is too small to notice. Of course, it’s a simple fact that no single person can be everywhere or see and do everything. That’s where trust comes in.

A principal, especially one new to the position or the school, has to quickly discover who is trustworthy and in which situations. Can the administrative support staff be relied upon to take accurate messages and keep the principal up to date on happenings within the school? Which teachers are able (and willing) to contribute information and ideas? And regarding that parent organization, how effective is the leadership at getting done those things that are really top priorities? Can they be counted on to really think about the needs of the school? Will they communicate well? Or will they go off and do their own thing—and still expect the principal to deliver, for example, staff participation whenever called upon.

If the PTO and the principal already have a history, what has happened in the past that caused concern on either side? Was there a breakdown of trust or communication—or both?

Once you have imagined and prepared a list of potential concerns for the principal, you are ready to plan your initial meeting with the person in charge. Organizing your key points and deciding what you really want or need will make the meeting easier.

For our purposes, let’s imagine that this is a principal who has had some sort of problem in the past with a parent group. Think about what the points of contention or discord may have been. Also think about your own group’s goals and objectives, for this meeting and in general. What do you hope to accomplish? Write down those objectives, and limit discussion to just one or two of them for the initial meeting.

Also link any concerns you’ve identified that the principal may have in response to your objectives—in other words, anticipate any objections, reactions, or disagreements on the part of the school administrator. Include anything you’re afraid might happen during this meeting. Then, for each objection or disagreement, write your “solution,” the positive way you will deal with the potential problem. Jotting down all these possibilities will actually help reduce their effect if they do come up during the meeting.

Your next step is to organize all your notes and actually arrange the meeting. Try to choose a spot where you won’t be disturbed. The principal’s office may not be the best choice! It might be a good idea to meet away from the school, perhaps in your office space or even at a community center or other neutral location where you won’t be interrupted by phone calls and office staff. If that isn’t possible, at least try to find a space in the school building where there are no phones, and remember to turn off your own cell phone.

A few simple rules might be in order as you begin your meeting. First, don’t assume that the principal will automatically object to everything you want. Do assume that in the long run, your overall goals match more closely than you might think right now. Second, listen carefully, especially for the common ground. Make sure to convey that you are listening, and paraphrase occasionally to help your principal feel certain that you understand and to aid your own comprehension. Something as simple as maintaining eye contact can be very important in this regard.

As the meeting progresses, use your organized list to make sure you keep your focus and cover your points. If there is overt hostility, you may want to observe it verbally, without judgment or reaction. For example: “I can hear your voice rising and you seem tense, as though you dislike what you are hearing. Is that right?” If this is the case, you might want to ask whether rescheduling the meeting would be a better plan, or whether she would like to break for a few minutes.

Regardless, don’t give up! Persist in communicating even if it isn’t comfortable, even if you don’t think the principal is making enough of an effort to see your viewpoint. If you continue to convey your respect for her position, that respect usually will be returned.

You may not like everything you hear, and you may not get everything you want. You will, however, come away with a much better understanding and the start of a better relationship. And if, despite your best efforts, your principal seems bent on ignoring the parents, you do have recourse in the superintendent or school board. Use them as a last resort though; never jump over the principal’s head if there is any way to make it work directly. Your goal is to partner with your principal, not create an enemy.