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Real Talk About School Principals


Working well with your school’s top administrator is important for PTO and PTA leaders. Here’s how to tackle some common sticking points.


Having a tough time making it work with your school’s principal? You’re not alone. Conversations in our community of leaders frequently reveal struggles they have with their school administrators; we break those down and give advice on how to manage these principal problems.

Our principal is resistant to anything and everything! It feels like he hardly allows us to do a thing. Help!

What you can do:

When a principal seems to discourage PTO involvement, it may be because he isn’t familiar with how parent groups work or has had a bad experience with one in the past. It could also be that there’s an unspoken concern behind the negative responses you’re getting, like security issues or the potential for putting extra demands on staff members.

Start by asking for a meeting to talk things through. If you can find out more about how the principal sees your group and then share what your group hopes to do—and how your hard work will benefit the children at the school—there’s a good chance the principal will become more open to your ideas. If the principal has a specific concern, ask what the parent group can do to address the concern and work to find a solution both sides can support. For example, if he’s worried that the spring carnival will require custodians to work on the weekend, you could recruit a cleanup crew and ask the principal to provide a checklist for the crew to tackle.

Spread the word—schools thrive because of hard-working parent groups

Another strategy for showing you want to work as partners is to take the lead in syncing up your agendas: Find out what the principal wants for the school, then come up with ideas that more closely line up with those goals. For instance, if he wants to improve reading scores, the parent group could provide prizes for a schoolwide reading challenge.

It can take time for a principal to establish a trust level with a parent group, so manage your expectations. Keep working at communicating and connecting with him so you feel like you’re on the same team.

I feel like we have a hard time communicating with the principal. She ignores phone calls and emails and only responds to texts briefly. How can we get her to be more responsive?

What you can do:

Don’t take it personally. It could be that your principal feels overwhelmed by trying to keep up. Being a principal is a busy job; in addition to PTO or PTA concerns, she’s handling personnel issues, preparing reports for the superintendent, dealing with myriad student issues, and responding to tons of questions from parents.

Many principals respond better to having regular conversations with a parent group leader rather than feeling pressured to keep up with frequent calls, emails, or texts. You could meet weekly, biweekly, or monthly; ask her what works best. And get in the habit of saving your questions or status reports for those meetings.

If you need a rapid response between regular check-ins—maybe you need her to approve the building use request so you can plan family movie night—send an email that gently reminds her about the pending request and asks for a response by a specific date. For the subject line, use something like “Movie night: response requested.” Avoid coming off as impatient or demanding in the email. Acknowledge that you’re aware of the many demands on the principal’s time, and thank her for her support of your group.

Our principal participates in our meetings a little too much. While we appreciate that he shares information and school happenings, he ends up leaving little time for the PTO itself to accomplish or discuss much of anything else. How can we rein him in without being rude?

What you can do:

Does your group try to keep its meetings to an hour? There’s a key reason you should—to encourage more people to attend—but as a bonus, if you commit to one-hour meetings, it can help your principal keep his remarks on the shorter side.

Schedule PTO business for the beginning of the meeting, with a standing agenda item later on for the principal’s update. If he feels he has more to say than can be discussed in his allotted time, offer to set up a monthly or quarterly meeting with parents. 

Our new principal wants to control what fundraisers we can do, and even what we can spend the money on. The last principal didn’t do this. What should we do?

What you can do:

While your parent group should be independent of the school and make its own decisions, you want to try to work in partnership with the school, not at cross-purposes. If your principal seems to want to have a say in your fundraisers, arming yourself with facts—and to an extent, being willing to compromise—can help.

For example, if you feel strongly that your preferred fundraiser is better than what the principal wants to do in terms of profit, volunteer time required, and student participation and excitement, do your research and ask to meet so you can talk about it. At the same time, if your principal seems committed to a particular idea, ask whether he would be willing to do the same—consider all aspects of the fundraiser and whether it’s really the best fit. You can also brainstorm together about a fundraiser that supports a school goal, like a fun run that promotes student physical fitness.

In terms of how to spend the money, many PTOs budget a certain amount of money for the principal to spend on items or needs as they come up. However, the principal should be required to make a formal written request to the PTO board before he has access to these funds; the request should indicate how the money will be used and how it will benefit the students. The principal may come to the board with additional requests, and your board can handle those requests at its discretion. If your bylaws don’t specify to allocate funds through mutual discussion (with the final decision in the hands of the PTO board), then an amendment would be in order. You do want your budget to support the school’s goals, but you don’t want the school—or the principal—in control of your budget.

Our principal asks us to do things with little to no advance notice. We want to support the school and have a good relationship with her, but the last-minute requests are difficult.

What you can do:

How to best handle this depends on the request, why the principal made it, and the history. There’s a difference between a principal occasionally asking for favors, like picking up muffins and coffee for a meeting she forgot about, and one who habitually relies on the PTO for last-minute help with complex or time-consuming tasks.

If she legitimately didn’t know about something, finds herself in a bind, and needs the assist, it can help strengthen your relationship to be flexible and help her out. But if she’s making regular last-minute requests for help with activities that were planned well in advance, it’s reasonable to let her know that you’ll be more effective in meeting the requests if you’re given more advance notice. If the principal is asking the PTO to provide more assistance than your group can manage, tell her that you would like to help out, but you don’t have enough funds or volunteers available to do what she’s asking.

Sometimes it seems like the principal is a remote figure in our school and that a lot of parents don’t really have a connection with him. How can we help?

What you can do: 

A fun way to help parents see the principal as relatable and accessible is to ask whether he’d be part of a fundraising incentive. These days, principals have been known to kiss pigs, get duct-taped to walls, and much more in the name of being a good sport while helping the school raise money.

But if your principal isn’t that type, there are lots of ways you can help foster a good connection between him and school parents, like planning a chat session after a PTO meeting or providing coffee and doughnuts for a “breakfast with the principal” meeting one school morning.

How do we handle a principal who wants to micromanage everything? He really seems to think he’s in charge of our parent group.

What you can do:

Controlling behavior tends to be rooted in fear, so a starting point would be to set up a meeting where you can lay out your goals and agendas. If you have a specific example of where you’ve felt micromanaged—for example, the principal is insisting on having a barbecue instead of the traditional ice cream social—you can try telling him that while you’re sure he has good intentions, changing the event without your group’s buy-in feels undermining. Often, such examples stated clearly and non-defensively are enough of an eye-opener to get someone to see the effect they’re having, and to amend their ways.

But it’s an unfortunate reality that some people are just difficult to work with. If you’ve tried to discuss the situation and you’re not getting anywhere—or worse, it’s truly interfering with your group’s ability to get things done—you’ll need to take a different approach. Is there a teacher or other staff member you work well with who might have some insight about the principal? If so, ask for suggestions on working better with him. If that’s not an option, you might need to adjust your expectations. Focus on developing a positive working relationship and building trust, and be flexible about event details when you can be.

Originally posted in 2017 and updated regularly.

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