When parent groups and teachers work together, everything becomes easier. Great parent groups create the kind of supportive atmosphere where teachers can do their best work. Likewise, parent groups are most effective when teachers support their work and goals. Everyone pulls together so you reach your destination faster.
It’s easy to get so caught up in planning and organizing that you don’t spend much time thinking about teachers and how they feel about the parent group. Understanding what matters to staff members can help strengthen relationships with them and target your group’s efforts more effectively.
We asked teachers to tell us what they love about their school’s parent group. With all the things parent groups do—from rounding up volunteers to buying books for the library—it’s no wonder so many teachers rave about their PTO. They like many things that PTOs do for them, both big and small. And universally, they say communication is key. They like to be kept in the loop about what the parent group is planning, consulted on plans that might interrupt classroom time, and included in discussions about new events and policies. Here’s what we learned.
A Little Relief
Teachers appreciate direct help with simple tasks. At many schools, parent volunteers supervise kids on the playground at recess or help keep things calm in the cafeteria. This can give staff members a few extra minutes to get caught up or have a less hurried lunch break.
At St. Simons Elementary on St. Simons Island, Ga., parent volunteers staff the classrooms once a year so teachers can have a leisurely lunch at a restaurant. The rest of the year, a typical lunch break is just 25 minutes. “Our PTA genuinely loves their school,” says school staff member Lisa Byrns. “We are blessed to have such a fine organization.”
Many parent groups also coordinate classroom volunteers to tutor children who are behind so that teachers can concentrate on other students. Parents can’t take the place of the teacher, but they can spend 15 minutes reading with a child. Another way to pitch in is to organize members to help supervise science experiments and other projects that can get messy.
QUICK TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask “What can we do to make your life easier?” Keep a list of volunteers who can help during school hours and let staff members know that help is available when they need it.
St. Simons teachers also praise their PTA for keeping beloved traditions going, such as an annual art event and a fall festival. Although parent groups usually spearhead events like field days, spring flings, or multicultural days, teachers love them, too—especially those who have been at the school for many years. At schools where the parent group becomes inactive, it’s typical for teachers to try to organize these events themselves. It’s a lot of work, but they do it because they value these activities.
QUICK TIP: Before jumping on a new event like a fashion show or an eco-friendly festival, make sure faculty members are on board, particularly if a traditional event is being disbanded to make way for it. Communicating with teachers about events can help your group make more informed decisions and build stronger support for your ideas.
Teachers are loath to place too much emphasis on money when discussing the value of their school’s parent group. Still, with many local and state budgets being chipped away or slashed, the parent group plays a vital role.
“Our PTA is also the fuel that keeps us going financially, an absolute fundraising powerhouse that utilizes many parents and community connections to bring in huge amounts of cash,” says Lisa Duke, a teacher at Catharine Blaine K-8 School in Seattle. “In an urban district where funding is tight, we rely on our PTA to maintain our supplies, help fund camps and field trips, provide artist in residence programs, and to supplement suffering arts and music curricula.”
When pressed to identify what they like best about their parent group’s funding role, many teachers acknowledged a sincere appreciation for cash. On average, elementary school teachers spend $539 of their own money each school year, and middle school teachers spend $393, according to a 2006 report by marketing and research firm Quality Education Data. Even a small contribution from the parent group can be a major plus for a teacher.
Ashley Burgess, a former elementary school teacher in suburban Atlanta, worked with many parent groups and says she loved them all. What stands out most is the $100 she was allowed to spend on her classroom, backed up by receipts. “That made me feel so good,” she says. “We’re able to do a lot with an extra $100.”
QUICK TIP: Ask teachers which needs are greatest, and seek their recommendations before investing in big-dollar items. If your parent group gives teachers money for the classroom, streamline the process to minimize paperwork.
Teachers are happy when their parent groups develop cool new projects and events. But teachers have dreams, too, and they love it when the parent group helps them make their own vision a reality. Many ambitious ideas could never come off without the help of parents—or without the PTO or PTA putting its organizational skills and people power behind it.
You can make it possible for a teacher to stage a musical by sewing costumes, building sets, selling tickets, and doing many other tasks. Parent group members at the Birch Primary School in North Olmsted, Ohio, helped promote literacy by organizing a “Million Minute Reading Challenge.” The parent group at Loveland Elementary in Ohio organized a science discovery day in which scientists performed experiments to demonstrate concepts related to their profession.
QUICK TIP: Ask teachers what types of projects they’d like to do given enough parent support. Let them know that the parent group wants to help with their special projects, too.
Good parent groups make their teachers feel special all year long. But a prime opportunity to show teachers you care is during Teacher Appreciation Week in May.
Staff members say no gesture is too small or too corny. A California teacher says she was moved to tears when her room parents presented her with a scrapbook documenting the past school year. At the back of the scrapbook was a gift card to a nice restaurant.
Some parent groups sponsor gourmet lunches; others choose less expensive but still fun themes, such as a barbecue or luau. Others go with decadent dessert tables or a hearty breakfast buffet. A personalized note left in a teacher’s box is always welcome.
One recent trend is to have massage therapists visit the school and pamper teachers. Other ideas in keeping with today’s interest in wellness include bringing in a yoga teacher or stocking the break room with healthy snacks.
A Chicago teacher says she was thrilled, after a long day teaching middle schoolers, to find the break room stocked with baskets overflowing with individual packages of pretzels, chips, and dark chocolate.
“A little chocolate,” the teacher says, “goes a very long way.”
QUICK TIP: Take time to appreciate your teachers. Teachers didn’t get into their line of work for high salaries, and they don’t expect lavish gifts from the parent group. Regardless of what you can afford, your teachers will be touched if it comes from the heart.