Finding the PTO leadership position most suited to a volunteer's talents is a bit like matchmaking. It's important to find intersecting and complementary passions and strengths. For nominating committees and others on the lookout for new executive board members, here's a look at some essential characteristics for the job of president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and committee chair. (Don't miss the tips at the end on nurturing new parent group leaders.)
The president presides at general and executive board meetings, acts as a liaison with the principal, and oversees the work of the PTO executive board. That's a short description for a lot of work and responsibility.
One essential quality of an effective president is the ability to inspire others. "You have to be able to motivate and inspire people who want to join," says Barbra Chase Burke, former president of the Roxborough Primary and Intermediate School PTIC in Littleton, Colo. "Even though the PTO is about kids, I find it interesting that if other parents don't like you, they won't work for you."
The president also has to have a broad vision. "You can't see things just from your child's view or your own view or the view of the teachers," says Jill Herrera, PTO president at Mark Twain Elementary in Houston. "You have to see all views—the school, the teachers, all the children, the community." You need to be open minded, to recognize that there's not just one right approach. "When you have 15 board members who have their own opinion of how we should do things, you don't just say nope," says Julie Dee, PTO president at Mannsdale Elementary in Madison, Miss. "You have to listen to everybody's suggestions. You have to welcome any and all suggestions."
The president needs to mediate and solve problems, too. "You cannot be afraid of confrontation," says Burke. "You have to be able to understand what the problem is from both sides and then guide them toward resolution and apology."
And you need to be able to communicate that vision orally and in writing in order to reach out and connect with people. "The president should be someone who wants to have personal relationships with the people they're at school with," Herrera says. "You need to create a sense of community, of partnership, of ownership."
A parent group president should be visible, well-organized, and able to delegate, too. It also helps to be able to improvise—quickly. Mannsdale Elementary, a brand-new school, scheduled a ribbon cutting last fall. The city promised to provide the ribbon. But when no one from the city had shown up by the appointed hour, Dee says, "I tried not to panic in front of 400 people." She sent her husband to their house across the street to look for old Christmas ribbons in their attic, and she grabbed a bow from a plant sent to the school as a welcome gift.
The vice president assists the president and steps in for the president as needed. Other duties may be assigned. Having a job with such few clear responsibilities can be a challenge. "A VP has no certain duties beyond learning the ropes," says Amy Parise, who served as the PTO vice president at Western Avenue Elementary in Geneva, Ill., while preparing to take over as PTO president at a new school—Fabyan Elementary—set to open nearby. "It's an interesting position. You pick up any slack where you might need to, jump in where you're needed."
In many parent groups, the vice president is getting ready to take on the presidency the following year. As a result, a key challenge of this post is to manage current projects while immersed in planning for the future. This proved especially daunting for Parise. "I spent a lot of time anticipating the opening of a new school and the formation of a new PTO," she says. "It's almost as if I wasn't doing as much for the school I was currently at. A vice president gets ready for the next year."
The secretary is usually responsible for taking minutes at general and executive board meetings, distributing the minutes, and in some cases handling correspondence, keeping the group's calendar, and perhaps even managing the group's publications.
An ability to write quickly—and record quickly—is key. "It's a challenge to write fast enough to get everything down," says Tami McCarty, recording secretary for the Wards Creek Elementary PTO in St. Augustine, Fla. To ensure accuracy, McCarty stops the meeting when necessary to make sure she understands what was said, and she uses spotters at general meetings to help her identify speakers. She assigns the parliamentarian to check the names of invited speakers. She also listens carefully to distinguish between idle conversation and PTO business.
Integrity is vital, as well, when it comes to closed-door meetings. "People will call to ask what happened in a meeting or what this teacher or the principal said," McCarty says. "But sometimes confidential things are said that you can't communicate to everybody."
The treasurer helps develop a budget, collects fundraising money, writes checks for purchases and reimbursements, tracks all income and spending, makes financial reports at meetings, and prepares the books for periodic audits.
Financial experience or aptitude is vital. Often, those drawn to this position have experience in accounting or banking. For example, Renee Sickels, the PTO treasurer at Wards Creek, works at the bank where her PTO has an account.
Attention to detail and strong organizational skills are important, too. Knowing computer software can be a plus, though some treasurers prefer a traditional ledger. "It's old-fashioned, but I like to lay my hands on something," says Dan Eichmeier, PTO treasurer at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Valparaiso, Ind.
Patience is a virtue, especially when dealing with leaders who go over budget or don't keep good records. "Some people are really diligent about keeping track of expenses while some are more free spirited," Eichmeier says. And the treasurer has to be able to be the bad guy. That means acting as a bill collector for bad checks and sometimes saying no when people seek funds. "I'm pretty tight with the checkbook," says Jill Winkel, PTO treasurer at Robert Crown Elementary in Wauconda, Ill. "I have to be strong and able to say, 'No, we don't have the money to spend.'"
Being able to react quickly helps, too. When a bunch of checks blew away in a gust of wind on the way to the bank, Sickels and a fellow officer rushed around the parking lot to gather them up.
The job of a committee chairwoman can vary widely, from heading up a short-term event like the book fair to running a group's major annual event, such as an auction. The committee chairwoman recruits and oversees volunteers, keeps track of spending, plans, evaluates the event after it is over, and reports to the PTO executive board.
Barbara Rypkema is the committee chairwoman for grantwriting and publicity for the Tomahawk Elementary PTO in Lynchburg, Va. A big part of her job is to communicate with the parents of all 650 students, as well as 40 classroom and resource teachers. One of her most ingenious ideas was to start a Facebook page. "It's a very positive way to share information in a quick fashion," she says. "People showed up for our playground clean-up and a room mom meeting after seeing it on Facebook; they had missed every other announcement we sent."
In any position, perhaps the most important trait is the ability to laugh at oneself. Jill Herrera of the Mark Twain Elementary PTO in Houston learned that lesson when she arrived at school one day to find her reserved parking spot as PTO president once again taken by an unauthorized vehicle. Usually she would just find another spot farther away; occasionally she would stick a friendly reminder on the car's windshield. But on this particular day at the end of a long school year, dogged by illness, she parked her car behind the offending vehicle and left a note telling the driver to text her when he or she was ready to leave. Unfortunately, the car belonged to a team of four people who had flown in from out of state for a visit. They were there to observe the school's outstanding curriculum and its success in teaching compassion. Deeply embarrassed and apologetic, Herrera can laugh about her misstep now. And the parking spot? It's no longer an issue. "I have not done that again," she says.
Contact everyone who volunteers. Parents who fill out a PTO form agreeing to volunteer and then are never contacted are lost as potential new leaders.
Build personal relationships. People are more likely to say yes to someone they know and who knows them.
Ask more than once. Sometimes people are hesitant but will step up if coaxed.
Let them know they won't be abandoned. Support them, especially when they're new to a position.
Match volunteers' talents to the position. For example, an avid reader might like to run the book fair.
Encourage their creativity. Let them know that new ideas are welcome, that just because something was done one way before, it doesn't always have to be done that way.
Use shadowing. Help volunteers ease into a position gradually by having them work with someone in that position for a year before actually taking over themselves.
Encourage diversity on your nominating committee. That way, members will know lots of different people, and your group will be seen as welcoming participation by a variety of people.
Show appreciation. Thank volunteers individually, specifically, and publicly for their efforts, no matter how small. This will encourage them to deepen their involvement.