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Bridging the newbie-veteran gap.

by Tim Sullivan


Parent groups often develop a communication gap between new volunteers and the veterans who have seen it all. But what if we could bridge that gap and say what we’re really thinking? After all, true unity starts with a little understanding.

Dear Grizzled PTO Veteran,
I’m writing to you because deep down, I know you have a lot to teach me, an enthusiastic new volunteer. I know that you’ve put in years of volunteer time and that you’ve seen many different ideas tried (some without success) and that you have the best interests of the school at heart. But sometimes it seems that the PTO is all about you and your other experienced friends.

Do you remember what it was like when you were brand-new at the school? I bet you were a lot different than you are now—maybe more enthusiastic, probably less confident. I’m sure you were really looking forward to getting involved at your child’s new school. So am I.

That’s why it’s so frustrating for me and the other new parents who are trying to get involved to be shut out so often. I went to the first PTO meeting and felt invisible. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, and I really didn’t know anyone when I left. Everyone else seemed to know each other, so there were no introductions and few explanations of how things work. It reminded me of being the new kid in the high school cafeteria. It didn’t feel good.

You say you want more parents involved, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I’ve been through high school; I even pledged a sorority in college. I was hoping that was over. It’s hard for us new parents to believe that you really want help when our offers to help are greeted with indifference or simply dismissed. If you hear parents complain about a clique atmosphere, that’s why.

If you really think my ideas won’t work, I can understand that. But I need you to take the time to help me understand why (without making me feel like an outcast), and I think you’d do well to help me find a role where my enthusiasm can be put to good use. It’s possible that some of my ideas are good ones and that new volunteers and new ideas can reenergize a group.

I do hope we can come together.

Enthusiastic PTO Newbie

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Dear Enthusiastic PTO Newbie,
I’m writing to you because deep down, I know that our group needs new blood and new ideas and that you and your fellow younger parents can help me, a grizzled PTO veteran. I know growing parent involvement in our school is essential. But sometimes it seems like you think everything we’ve been doing for so many years has been colossally dumb or that we’ve been wasting our time.

Many of the volunteers on the board have been at this for many years, and we’ve all put in countless (often thankless) hours trying our best for the group, the school, and the kids. So when you come to your first meeting and question everything we’ve been doing (or not doing), it can feel like an indictment of all that work.

Looking at it honestly, I can see where you might feel less than welcomed. We can and should do better on that front. But I also have to share with you another truth: I’m tired and not perfect. This is your first child in school and your first year in the PTO world. It’s my third child and my 11th year doing this stuff. When I arrived at the school, I expected the PTO leaders to walk on water, too—to be welcoming and helpful and patient and able to leap the school building in a single bound.

Then I was elected (I was unopposed and there were only six others at the meeting), and I realized Supermom doesn’t exist and our PTO has to succeed with a bunch of imperfect volunteers who sometimes drop the ball.

We really do want more help, and we love new volunteers. If we don’t do a terrific job of making you feel like the greatest new recruit ever, please chalk it up to the tired thing (or the non-Supermom thing), and please do come back. Maybe you’ll be the volunteer who, over time, makes our group as welcoming as we actually want to be. I hope so.

I also hope you’ll be open to the possibility that our experience does have merit. Taking the time to get to know how things happen and why (and then taking the time to be careful of feelings when you propose change) would be great. I will try to learn from you and remain open to change, but I’d really like you to respect the experience and perspective that I have.

I hope we can come together and do great things, too.

Grizzled PTO Veteran


# Lisa 2008-09-23 18:32
Excellent article, and it put into words exactly how I've been feeling as a PTO newbie. It also helped me understand what the veterans have gone through and all they've sacrificed for our children's education. So glad I found these "letters," which no doubt will help be become a better, more understanding PTO member.
# Tu 2008-09-23 18:50
It would be nice if the veteran group members would actually share the history of what kind of projects were done, so that newbies could get a perspective of what has been done, the hurdles, the stop signs, and those things. Many times, veterans are aware of what limits they have for the parent group, with the many other groups on campus, but those are not shared.

Also, if the newbies gave ideas with the possible ways to get these things going, it would be good too. Feeling outcast is not a good thing, ever. Having people roll their eyes at each other, or give knowing nods makes newbies, or even the potential newbies feel as if there is an old-boy network, and wonder why they'd want to be a part of that.
# annette 2008-09-23 23:43
I think the newbies sometimes want to re invent the wheel! Us old grizzlies want to show them what worked and what didn't but they don't want to always hear it. They take it as a " you know it all" attitude , when it is really a "been there done that" attitude. We want to train the newbies, and then let them tweek the system, not re invent the system!
# ladybug crossing 2008-09-24 11:31
As the grizzled mom who ended up in the Chair position because there were 4 people at the meeting and 2 were moving on to another school, I can totally relate.
We live way out - where we have more cows than people. Some of the newbies come from a school closer in. They don't understand that out here there aren't the shops and restaurants that donate cash. The in town businesses don't want to donate because we are "far out". It's a tough place to be. I can only hope that they don't get "jaded" before the end of the year...
# Kathie 2008-09-24 15:43
I think the veteran parent sounded awfully defensive in her "letter". I think the "newbie" parent made some good points.
I know that veterans have experience but new blood id really necessary to keep thing moving and growing. I may have had mutiple children at a school and been involved for many years, but we all get into ruts.
If the veteran is "tired" it is time to walk a little and let others parents with more energy do the running.
Don;' be afraid to pass the baton. This is not a race but a relay and a marathon at times- and we need to keep involving everyone or we won't acheive our goals.
So reach out a hand and bring someone new into the fold.
Remember- many hands make ligher work and more fun for everybody.
# Maria 2008-09-28 01:15
I think both newbies and veterans have legitimate points! I was a newbie volunteer last year and this year I decided to accept a Chair position. I know it is human nature to want to be recognize for our thoughts and ideas. We all just need to keep in mind that we all want what is best for the children. Our children will not be at the school system forever, so just do your best and, veterans, please make an extra effort to involve the newbies. They have to be able to run with the baton (and not drop them) once you leave the school system. Take the time to listen to everyone's ideas. I find that throwing out ideas most times sparks some new ones that may improve what was tried before. I am very fortunate to be involve with a group that is eager to help each other (and thank you to those veterans for helping me plan and carry out my first school event--and it was a success!).
# Debra 2008-11-22 12:25
Thanks for this article. I shared it with my whole group! I have been on both sides and it lets us know that we are not alone in this. Every group seems to have the same issues.
# Maggie 2010-06-22 17:14
When I was young and started new jobs I wanted to fix everything. I was lucky to have a mentor who took me under his wing and said, Wait one season, learn WHY things are done our way, and THEN make suggestions and changes.

I think for new parents it's important to learn that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Just jump in, help out, and be ready to take a leadership role the next year.
# karen 2010-08-18 03:02
When I was a newbie, I jumped right in full-throttle. There actually wasn't much happening when I arrived on the PTO scene, so our newly formulated group created a lot of energy and school spirit together over a couple years time.

Now we are growing tired and desperately want new blood. There aren't many who have come knocking. We haven't had many of the newbies as eager and self-motivated to initiate or even speak of their ideas, so we try to ask for their ideas. We've also spent time introducing and explaining things when an idea is raised that we may have tried before. There was a difficult experience a newbie came on way too strong for the group and created a lot of tension without taking the time to assimilate.

This article helps a lot. I obviously relate more to the veteran, but i truly want to understand and also assist the newbie in their endeavors to participate. I think of our group as a team. It's helpful if that goes both ways between the newbie and the veteran.
# M 2010-08-19 21:42
We are experiencing this situation right now...the old volunteers are very defensive of our questions and we are just trying to put the pieces together and figure out how things work...totally frustrating
# Nicole 2013-06-04 21:10
This is a great way to provide the perspective for those who read this article. Now, how do we actually bridge the gap? I became president this year as a complete "newbie," having merely attended meetings last year. Virtually my entire board was newbies because the old guard was 1) too tired to keep doing it themselves and 2) didn't want to work with any of the newbies. Without even talking to any of us, they all thought we were going to come in and change everything. None of us had that thought, though we did want to try to improve some things. Despite our attempts to say hey we're new and we'd like everyone's input, the veterans took an us v. them approach and attacked everything we did. We saw the whispering, eye rolling, and laughing at us during meetings. It hurt. We got emails out right telling us we were doing everything wrong. Even when we tried reaching out, they just dismissed us.

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