Drama seems like a fact of PTO life—but it doesn’t have to be.

by Tim Sullivan


There’s too much drama in PTO land.

Yeah, I know, there’s too much drama everywhere. You can barely read the paper without hearing about road rage or a parent behaving badly at a Little League game. But sometimes it seems like drama is the norm rather than the exception for many parent groups, and there’s almost no way for involvement to grow and community to flourish in that kind of atmosphere. As a leader, one of your most basic goals has to be reducing or avoiding drama.

There are many reasons why drama seems to find its way so easily into PTO life. It starts with the passion that many of us bring to any endeavor involving our kids. Add in the fact that most schools bring together a cross section of society, with many different viewpoints on the role of a PTO and how a volunteer group should operate.

I suggest that the final contrib­uting factor is a lack of recognized authority and leadership. Yes, we have officers, but even the president of your group isn’t the boss of a prickly parent. The president can’t simply put an end to a problem with a stern word or a punishment. In most other areas of our lives—our families, our jobs, even our days as students—there are recognized authority figures who can step in and restore order or even remove the problem entirely.

I bet you’ve wished once or twice that you could ground or suspend or perhaps fire a volunteer. But you can’t, and thus drama tends to fester. The squeaky wheel not only gets grease, she may also chase away better volunteers in the process.

But drama isn’t just about the occasional unreasonable volunteer. More often, in fact, it pops up between well-minded people. Among even excellent volunteers, the unintended slight, the change in last year’s process, the misunderstood email—they’re the kindling of acrimony. It even happens with leaders. Do you love to associate with the PTO (“us”) during successes but privately complain about the PTO (“them”) during times of struggle? All of these things, if allowed to boil, can become fuel for drama. How you handle them will determine the atmosphere of your group.

So what’s the drama-avoiding PTO leader to do? Because we do lack that my-way-or-else authority, the only real alternative is to help your group mature. How can you make your group a place where adult manners and adult habits win?

It starts with open communication. When you sense hurt feelings or a murmur of discontent, address it openly right away—not in a gossipy way, but as the adult. “I’ve heard some questions about this issue, and I wanted to clarify my thoughts and get your feedback” is a disarming approach whether it’s used in a one-on-one email or in front of your whole group or committee.

We hear stories about perceived and real misdeeds all the time on our message boards at ptotoday.com. “What should we do?” is the plea. My first response is almost always the same: “Have you tried sitting down and having a calm, adult conversation about your concerns?” That simple first step, which is an excellent way to defuse drama, is often skipped.

I also find that self-deprecating humor can go a long way before, during, and after conflicts. You’re not in this to win arguments and you’re certainly not perfect; don’t be afraid to mention both of these early on. The latter will become clear eventually, so you might as well get ahead of it.

I also can’t emphasize enough the value of distributing credit and taking blame. If you’re the adult (and therefore don’t need every bit of glory for yourself) and you see the value of reducing drama, this is the magic formula. Thank and praise widely and publicly. When feelings are hurt, apologize rather than explain why feelings shouldn’t have been hurt. That keeps others from turning away. Defensiveness begets drama.

I hear all the time that being part of the PTO feels like being back in the high school cafeteria with its cliques and its social stress, but I find that to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t have to be that way. Your group can do better.

In high school, it was hard to be above the fray because we couldn’t see the fray; we weren’t adults. Now we are. Or at least you can be—and that can make all the difference.


# SW 2009-03-24 21:01
Are you peaking into our PTO right now?!? Very timely article for us. Thanks for the tips!
# sb 2009-03-25 05:35
This is great, I am glad to know that it's just not our pto that has drama!!
# DS 2009-03-25 14:35
Wonderful article. I've learned that addressing "drama queens" early & directly seems to calm everyone down. Hear them out, but focus on the group's goals.
# TAT 2009-04-03 17:10
How true it is!!! Our school is just into its 2nd year and it feels like some people are forgetting what they learned in Kindergarten... How to play together in the sandbox nicely without throwing sand at each other!!! Great article...glad to hear that it is like this for others!!!
# MMB 2009-04-04 16:45
OMG!! I feel so much better knowing other PTO's are just like ours, I thoght it was just us!!! I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to walk out of a meeting due to the drama and sheer pettiness. Oh, and the thought of running for an office to try to make things better. Are you kidding me? I'm not about to jump into that frying pan!!! And, unfortunately others feel the same, which is really too bad, and will ultimately keep us exactly where we are at. Thanks for the superb article and insight into PTO's, maybe we can use some of your advice and turn ours around. Thanks!!!
# CP 2009-04-24 04:38
Interessting...we addressed the drama head on at the beginning of the year, answered all the questions and supposed hurt that had gone on in the past. Thought it was getting better, but now I am told that I am simply taking my opinion and shoving down the throats of the PTO members. Hmm... too bad, I thought the drama was over, but here it is again staring me squarely in the face!
# Carley 2009-06-17 01:41
I am so relieved to have read this article. This year at my child's school there seemed to be a lot of drama. When there did not have to be. Bc of this we lost great volunteers. but I think all involved have learned a great deal and the same mistake will not be made this year.
# DC 2009-12-08 15:27
I've learned that almost always, communication is at the root of all drama.

We have issues in our own PTO where the Pres and VP are very good friends and have a tendency to mull over PTO business outside of the PTO, then forget to communicate that process with the remaining officers/participants. It should be expected that they'd discuss matters outside of the large group, but it is the lack of communicating those discussions with everyone else that causes problems.

It is always good to remember that what seems like "no big deal" to one member might in fact be a VERY bid deal to others.
# June 2010-12-10 01:50
PTO leaders should also to remember not to take all of the credit. At our PTO the four main officers are friends and like to make decisions and work on projects outside of the meetings. We give the ideas and they take them and run with them. They do all the fun stuff and only ask us to volunteer for the grunt work.
# Ann Harvey 2012-11-05 14:47
This is amazing timing. Our PTO is losing it's secretary over a vote we took. The vote was 3-1 and she quit because no one voted like her.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am doing this for the school - and my daughter. But it can be a difficult road.
# KS 2012-11-14 16:01
Great article! I wish there was a way for me to forward this on to all the officers/members of our PTO without it seeming like I'm pointing fingers. Unfortunately, though, our group has become so "catty" and so much a "clique" for the "social elite" that it's time for this momma to R.U.N.!!

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