Over the years, I’ve come to realize that a stint with the PTO is as good as any executive training program. Better, actually. Because in addition to making a more exciting, enriching atmosphere for our children to learn in, the PTO turns ordinary parents into leaders. It offers an environment where you can test your capabilities, learn about issues that are important to you, and meet people who can help you identify and achieve goals.
Take Mary Ellen Kennedy’s experience. Mary Ellen was cochair of the PTO at my daughter’s school. She quickly earned a reputation as a parent leader skilled at bringing people together and getting things done quickly and efficiently. When the district built two new elementary schools, Mary Ellen helped establish PTOs for each one, making it a fairly simple matter for the new board members to step into their roles when school began. At some point, the superintendent invited Mary Ellen to represent the PTO on a district planning committee. The group grappled with ways to stretch a budget already at its breaking point. Somebody suggested establishing a foundation to fund special programs. The superintendent warned that a previous attempt to do so had failed because it was such a complicated process.
Undeterred, Mary Ellen and others pursued the idea. Her experience helping establish two PTOs as nonprofits gave her and others the confidence to navigate the requirements to establish a foundation. You can guess how the story ends. The foundation is firmly in place and gearing up for its second round of funding initiatives to benefit teachers and students.
In our PTO, we like to use the image of a snowball rolling downhill to describe what happens when you raise your hand to volunteer. It works like this:
Your child enters kindergarten and you show up for a PTO meeting. When the volunteer sheet comes around, you sign up to help with school pictures. The day comes and you’re smoothing kids’ hair and straightening their clothes. You look up and your own child is walking through the door with her classmates, waving wildly at you. The pride on her face makes your breath catch. You’re hooked. You seek other ways to help out. You meet other parents and your social support system grows. Over time, you get to know the teachers, administrators, and others who populate your child’s days. One day you step into the building and realize it feels like home. Your world has gotten bigger.
At some point, you step up to a leadership position with the PTO. You had never really imagined yourself doing anything like that, but suddenly the opportunity is there and you know you’ll do a good job. Your confidence grows.
In your new role, you learn about the issues facing not only your child’s school but also the district and education in general. You find areas beyond the PTO where you can make a contribution. Maybe you join a task force. Perhaps someone encourages you to run for the school board. Maybe you even decide to change careers and go into education. Or take a management position to put your newly discovered leadership skills to work. By the time you’re ready to step down from the PTO, you’re a somewhat changed person. Though the details differ from person to person, the outcome is the same. When you push a snowball down the hill and roll with it, you end up with something much greater than you ever imagined.