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Is It Really Worth It?

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Leading a parent group is a lesson in delayed gratification—you work hard now for results that emerge sometimes years down the road.

by Sharron Kahn Luttrell


Don’t you love September? The school year is new and full of promise. Your parent group is recharged and bubbling over with ideas. You can’t wait for your first big fundraiser. Now, if only that optimism would last. Because as surely as a flu bug will make its way through your family this winter, your group is certain to suffer a bout of fatigue and cynicism.

Maybe it will start the moment you breathlessly describe your group’s latest plan to the principal, only to have her squint back as though she were trying to remember who you are. Or perhaps it will be after hot-gluing your 150th pompon to the exact center of a construction-paper flower, when you stop to rub your aching fingers and wonder how long until your blossoms end up in the trash. Twenty-four hours after the teacher appreciation luncheon? Twelve? Two? Maybe you’ll make it through most of the year, then find yourself spitting out the word “MISS!” to the gleeful first-grader intent on drowning you in the school carnival dunk tank.

PTO fatigue happens when you throw yourself wholly into volunteering and you don’t see immediate results or when the recipient doesn’t respond with an equal amount of enthusiasm. Fortify yourself against burnout by reminding yourself that change happens slowly. Every bit of energy you expend on behalf of your child’s school is absorbed into the environment, where it nourishes and eventually enriches the culture.

PTO Today’s Parent Group of the Year is one example of this. Madison Elementary in Mount Vernon, Wash., is what’s called a “high impact” school. The majority of its students live in poverty, and half the kids leave before the year ends. The 50 percent turnover rate hurts standardized test scores, and the school suffers a poor reputation.

A couple of years ago, a handful of parents came along with abundant time and attention to give. Their work has been so creative, comprehensive, and tireless that if there were a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a PTO’s efforts and its results, Madison Elementary would be teeming with parent volunteers, standardized test scores would rocket, and the students would all grow up to be Nobel Prize-winners. That hasn’t happened, but there are signs that the efforts are working. Teachers are starting to feel better about coming to work every day. Parents who traditionally didn’t volunteer are showing up to help, and the PTO raised more money last year than it has in the past. Small improvements, but they’re there.

Nurturing a school is like raising children. How many times have you dragged yourself out of bed at 5 a.m. to bring your son to swim lessons—which you know for a fact that he loves—only to have him complain the entire way there and back? Or spent the better half of a Sunday sewing your daughter’s costume for the school play, then find it in a heap on the floor after her big night?

We all have times when we feel unloved, unappreciated, unnoticed by our kids. But we wouldn’t step out of their lives because of it. We know that the results of our attention aren’t always immediate but rather emerge over time—both with our children and our children’s schools. The reward often doesn’t come until months, maybe even years, later. But when it does come, we realize what we knew all along. It definitely was worth it.

Sharon Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.


# Keetahmarie 2009-01-23 17:01
Hi Everyone!

Thank you so much for all your good advice, tips, and all the great ideas you share with us. This is just the second year for our Parent Encouragement Team (Parent Group). They are doing a wonderful job and trying very hard to get more parents involved. We need some advice about how we can handle this situation. For Christmas the PET Team planned a great program for the parents and students. There was also a Christmas program going on so many of the parents who were there for the program came by. We ran out of food to serve them and we felt so bad about it. We don't want to lose these parents and want them to come back. What ideas do you have that we can do? We all feel so bad about the situation. Thanks, Keetahmarie.
# Tim Sullivan of PTO Today 2009-01-23 17:11
Hi Keet -

Sounds like you're doing good stuff. I don't think this particular flub (we all make 'em all the time!) should be too big a problem, if you handle it the right way. My suggestion: talk about it, have fun with it.

In your next newsletter or note home, address it but be fun. Something like: "We're so glad so many came out and that at least some of you got some nice snacks and refreshments (we really need to work on our food estimating skills -- ouch!). Seriously, apologies for the food and drink shortage, but 1) we hope you had a great time nonetheless; 2) we will get better on that front; and 3) the coolish coffee and warmish soda wasn't all that great anyway :-)

That kind of thing. Folks are generally much more forgiving about stuff like that than about, say, clique stuff or the like.

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