If you’re a rookie PTA parent, here’s my very best advice on pitching in, getting stuff done, creating change–and avoiding the drama!
I remember my very first PTA meeting eight years ago.
I was a brand new kindergarten parent, full of the kind of nerdy enthusiasm I specialize in. As a dietitian, I had visions of revamped school lunches and healthy snacks dancing in my head. I was ALL IN.
But I was also totally intimidated by the parents sitting around me in the school library that night. They already had committees and a shared history and knew what to do with signed permission slips and Box Tops. I was a complete newbie and wondered if I could find a place for all of my ideas and passion in this group of strangers.
Well, as anyone who has been in a PTA or PTO can tell you: If you have ideas and passion, someone WILL find a place for you. Then eventually plead with you to chair the committee. Because it really does take a village.
I eventually spent six years on the PTA’s Wellness Committee at my kids’ elementary school, including time as co-chair. I helped organize school-wide events and launch programs, was part of work I’m really proud of, made a lot of friends, and only cried once. Okay, maybe twice. But I also learned so much about working with others, how a public school system operates, and the right (and wrong) way to do things. I also made a few mistakes along the way that earned me some valuable lessons.
So if you’re a rookie PTA parent, here’s my best advice for you:
1. Learn the ropes: You may already have tons of fantastic ideas. But before jumping in and trying to overhaul everything, get a lay of the land. Find out what’s already been done, what has worked (and what hasn’t) and why. For instance, are there are any constraints you’ll be up against, like budget limitations or district policies?
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2. Bring new ideas: Once you’re settled in, don’t be afraid to pitch new twists to old traditions–or even brand new ways to approach things. Sometimes it takes having fresh perspectives for a committee to bust out of a rut. An important caveat to this point: Be respectful to those PTA parents who came before you, who put a lot of time and work into those traditions. You can learn a ton from them, even if you decide to do things differently. And there’s nothing worse than storming in to the first meeting and speaking disparagingly about a school event that’s beloved by others.
3. Offer solutions, not criticisms: It’s easy to spend meeting time railing against sugary school breakfasts or limited recess time (I know, I’ve done it!). But instead of griping about it, dig in and figure out what you can do. Can you meet with the school foodservice director to talk about the menu? Can you propose an active class reward like a dance party? When I got mad about all the whole apples and oranges being thrown away by students at breakfast, I organized parents to cut up the fruit instead. We called ourselves the Fruit Ninjas, and the program is still going five years later (read about it here).
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4. Be kind to the teachers and staff: This should go without saying, but an integral part of being in a PTA or PTO is working with teachers and staff–and kindness goes a long way in building and maintaining good relationships. If one of your passions is improving school food, get to know the people who run the school cafeteria too. They can be your allies and provide valuable insight into the way things work.
5. Dodge the gossip: There will be a lot of it. As with any large group of people trying to get something done, there will be hard feelings, misunderstandings, debates that devolve into arguments, and one or two especially difficult personalities thrown in for fun. It may be tempting to indulge in group gossip or drama. But as much as you can, stay above the fray. If there’s one thing I would tell the 2005 version of myself, it would be this!
6. Don’t overcommit. This is something you’ll probably learn the hard way, just like I did. It’s hard to say no when you feel like your children’s school needs you. But sometimes you have to for the sake of your family, your job, and your stress level. Give what you can with the time you have and don’t sacrifice your sanity for a school event. I think it’s safe to say that while teachers and administrators hope parents pitch in, they definitely don’t want moms and dads feeling overwhelmed and overloaded.
If you’ve been a PTA parent, what would you add to this list?