I like to think of our PTO Today offices in Wrentham, Mass., as the one big, busy tavern of the parent group world, the kind of place folks go to celebrate their great days and lament their not-so-great days.

Whether it’s via phone, mail, e-mail, or the message boards on ptotoday.com, it seems we’ve become like Cheers, the famous Boston bar from TV. You know, the place:

where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

And like the proprietors of any good tavern, we have the unique perspective of hearing all the good news and great stories...and all the struggles. After seven years behind this makeshift bar, we’ve come to appreciate those lyrics all the more. It’s amazing how similar parent groups are across the country, across school types (public, private, elementary, middle), and across all kinds of other demographic differences.

After pouring thousands of virtual drinks and listening to thousands of parent group tales, some truths have become clear. The best groups almost always share certain characteristics, as do struggling ones.

So, with dishtowel draped over the shoulder, we believe:

It starts with fun. Fun activities. People having fun. Leaders lightening up. Your involvement efforts and your challenges in attracting volunteers are both made infinitely better with a healthy dose of fun.

Family events are the building blocks of involvement. They create the warm, welcoming atmosphere that leads to folks volunteering and connecting with your school and their kids’ teachers and more.

Parent group leaders are odd. Yup—I said it. The best groups realize this and remember not to act as though the rest of your school’s parents are just like you. You’d help with school lightbulb-changing night. Most parents would not.

Parents matter. It’s the cliché heard round the world: “We’re just here for the kids.” Trouble is, it’s often misinterpreted to mean every waking minute and every single dollar has to be focused directly on the kids, when in fact the best groups know differently. Investing in resources for your parents and leaders, appreciating volunteers—these have a huge effect on your kids in the long term.

Meetings don’t. If asked to list the 10 best indicators of a particular parent group’s effectiveness, “How many folks attend your meetings?” wouldn’t be close to making the cut. Meetings are procedural. Meetings are insider. Meetings are (I suppose) a necessary evil. Meetings are...boring! Too many groups spend too much time focused on getting parents to attend meetings. Given the choice, I’ll take 100 families at a spaghetti supper over 100 parents at a parent group meeting anytime.

It’s OK to say no! Walls won’t crumble. The sun will still rise in the east. Every idea doesn’t have to be answered with “OK, we’ll give it a shot.” Choosing fewer activities and executing them more effectively is much preferred to doing more things less well.

Principals can get it. Principal-PTO power struggles are perhaps the number one reason why folks order stiff drinks at our virtual bar. Short of a principal transfer, these situations improve only when principals realize what’s in it for them. Increased involvement makes them look good (by raising test scores, among lots of other things), and the best way to raise involvement is to empower parents to work independently.

Parent groups are essential. No, not nice to have or an adjunct to the much more important work done by teachers and principals. Instead, an equal partner in creating the kind of school where kids can excel. No two ways about it.

Acronyms are not. PTO or PTA or HSA or XYZ—tens of thousands of groups of all stripes are doing amazing work every day.

Did I mention fun? Flock a couple of volunteers by covering their lawns with pink flamingos. Celebrate the end of a project or meeting or...pick any excuse...by going out and having a party.

And stop by for a cold one anytime. That’s what we’re here for.