Recommendations Wanted

One of the reasons I’m so overwhelmed right now (and writing posts like yesterday’s) is because the whole president of the PTA thing is totally kicking my ass. So not only is everything new at work, where the constant room-changing creates an air of daily chaos and stress that carries into the rest of my life, but I’m constantly thinking about, planning, responding to emails, discussing, and stressing about PTA and PTA events.

I knew the position was going to be hard, but I had no idea how hard (I also didn’t anticipate just how bad the work situation would be this year–it’s so much worse than I feared–and that is definitely exacerbating the PTA issues). One problem is that the most important person on my team–the woman who has been on the board the longest, and who was technically our fundraising chair–left on the third day of the school year when her daughter finally got the transfer they had been requesting since last January. She has been amazing about helping me with the big fall projects that I’m totally clueless on, but after October she will officially faze out. I’m so fortunate that the other woman who has been on the board for a long time is still helping me a ton, even though she technically termed out as Secretary and now is officially in a very low-key role. The new Secretary is totally game to help, she just doesn’t know what she’s doing (totally understandable as this is her first year and the whole operation is mostly a shit-show). The Treasurer seems very checked out, and I don’t know if it’s because she’s moved to a short-term rental while trying to sell her house (so stressful, I know) or if she’s just burnt out on PTA and the school in general, especially since she doesn’t know where she’ll be living next year, which might mean her kids won’t even be at the school anymore. The VP is doing exactly what I expected she would do, which is absolutely nothing, and that should be fine because I didn’t expect to have a VP at all, and I wouldn’t have had one (it’s not like she took the position from someone who would be doing more–no one else wanted the position), but it still bothers me, probably because I did so much last year as VP, and could really use more help this year as president.

Anyway, all that to say, I have two (and a half?) people who are helping me with a shit ton of stuff, and fall is a very busy time of year, and there is just a ton going on. Also, I will admit that it’s depressing to be the president of the PTA at a school where no one cares about being on the PTA or helping in any of the causes (okay, some people care but it’s a VERY small percentage). Which brings me to why I’m writing this post…

If we get to the end of this year and all we did was barely manage to maintain the status quo, which is not accomplishing a lot, I will not only be totally and completely depleted, but also incredibly disappointed. While current interest in the PTA (and school community) is depressing (to me at least), there is opportunity for building a base of active parents, because all the shit that went down last year has lit something of a fire under the asses of some parents, they just aren’t quite sure what to do with that renewed interest in participating. I really do think that if we approached the situation in new and productive ways, we could make a positive change that might carry forward at the school. I also know that I have NO IDEA how to go about rallying the parents at a school with a primarily socioeconomically disadvantaged student population.

If anyone out there has any resources that might help me with this, I’d so appreciate you sending them along. I will reach out to the state PTA, but when I have in the past, they haven’t had much of value to share with me. Frankly, it’s been disappointing.

I guess what I’m looking for are books or articles or blogs/sites that talk about community building and (sadly I have to care about this, as it’s technically PTA’s main purpose) fundraising, specifically in lower-socioeconomic communities. We also have a language barrier issue to overcome as about half of the families either don’t speak English at all, or don’t feel comfortable communicating in English. Even some good resources on grassroots movements could help. I honestly don’t know, I just have no idea what I’m doing, and I want to be more proactive in my attempts to make some real and lasting change, no matter how small.

19 Comments

  1. I’m not in the PTA world yet, but part of my job includes community building. Do you have something like class moms? Maybe a parent or two in each class that has expressed an interest in helping/doing something? You need to nuture those leaders as they have stepped up and want to help. Maybe figure out one project that these moms could help with so that everything is not on your shoulders.

    1. We don’t really have class mom at the school, and each teacher seems to have their own way of reaching out to the parents (or not). But trying to institute a system with a parent or two associated with each room would be a good place to start. I’ll look into that. Thanks.

      1. We are trying to institute the class parent thing this year. It doesn’t have to be a huge role, but sort of a liason between the PTA and other parents, someone to help get the word out to parents, ask for help, etc… in a more personal manner than a school-wide email.

        1. Our school does Room Reps, they organize the parties, etc for classrooms and are technically a PTA-run group (supposed to be members but most are not.) They are the ones that send emails to the classes about upcoming events, and are sort of the cheerleaders for participation.

          I’m the PTA Treasurer at our school for the second year and the people on the board can make a huge difference in the energy of the PTA. I’m the only one who carried over from last year and the difference is incredible to me, with so much more enthusiasm and fresh ideas coming up now (and all but one of the board have full-time jobs.) But the Treasurer role takes more time than I thought and it’s all I can volunteer for; I can’t take time off work to be on committees or even go to many of the events.

          Another commenter mentioned the constant pressure to volunteer from their PTA and while ours does send out tons of emails for volunteers, it’s really a request for help. I went to meetings for two years without actually volunteering for much at all so it probably depends on the culture of the school/PTA. I never felt pressured. I volunteered to be Treasurer for some very personal reasons but it was a way to be involved since I’m rarely on campus.

  2. I’m coming at this from a slightly different perspective (I served on our condo board for 11 years as Secretary, Treasurer and President), but I think the challenges you are facing are very similar to the ones I faced given the community.

    There were a few things that helped. First was putting together a priority list: what was needed immediately vs what was more long term. Some years, just maintaining the status quo was an accomplishment as it set the stage for the following year. The second thing is getting organized within your group. I’m an ideal world, you would cut the dead weight (i.e. Your VP), but the reality is unless it becomes painful most times these people stay on.

    Is there a professional organization for PTAs? For condo boards, there are local and national ones, which were very helpful. We also had a management association we hired to help us. Likely not something you can do, but there should be someone with expertise.

    As far as patent involvement, well that comes down to peer pressure. In my 11 years, I rarely had people get excited about what we were doing as a board. The times they did always revolved around a change that made their lives a bit more painful. It’s the reason good PTAs have a bullying factor to them as most people just want to reap the benefits without doing any work.

    Anyway, good luck!

  3. I have some thoughts but no solution, sorry…

    I work a full-time job. The past couple years more than full-time with work done and I am on weekends. I have two kids. My house on average is a freaking mess and I’m behind on a lot of things.

    Since my oldest started elementary school last year, I’ve been a member of the PTA and we are giving generous donations for every drive such is the readathon etc. that’s all I can do. I don’t have anymore time to give. No, I can’t work the Scholastic book fair or chair X activity. I’m on a non-– PTA committee that meets I have a dozen times year and I use my vacation leave a couple hours at a time to do that. But I’m not gonna take my vacation to sit there and work a booth, sorry and I have to say I’m really tired of the constant requests from the PTA and also the room moms to do more. Why no, I can’t help this morning with the applesauce making on short notice, my job isn’t like that. It’s not like we signed a contract agreeing to work whatever fundraiser the board comes up with, so that’s why I get really annoyed with the constant pressure to do it. It’s not like I’m sitting back enjoying the fruits of someone’s labor – – I probably donate enough money to more than compensate for the hours that someone else works in a booth. There are a lot of stay at home moms or part time moms at my school and perhaps some dads and I don’t think it all should be on them but I’m sorry those of us that work full-time simply don’t have anymore to give. That’s why I am amazed that you signed up to do what you’re doing. So basically, I don’t have any advice, since I feel like those of us at least at my school who don’t volunteer and now avoid going to meetings so we’re not pressured into volunteering simply don’t have anymore to give, it’s not that we’re assholes. And for me, it’s not a matter of coming up with the right motivation to get me to do something – – I am fiercely protective of that extremely small amount of time I have to myself and I’m not giving it up.

    1. I totally understand where you are coming from. The last thing I want to do is make people feel badly for their personal choices, or for their lack of choices if that is the case. I made the choice to be such a big part of my daughters school parent community for my own reasons, and I have no intention of judging other parents for not making the same choices. We are all doing what we need to do for ourselves and I respect the foundries people make for themselves.

      What I do want to accomplish, is provide meaningful opportunities for parents to participate, if they are interested in being a more active part of the school community. Our school is pretty deeply divided right now, and I know some people are interested in working to improve the overall climate. I also know they have to feel welcome in doing that, and that they have to feel like the organizers of the events have their wants and needs in mind. I want to organize events that people buy into because they legitimately care and want to be a part of them, and not because they feel some subconscious guilt if they don’t.

      1. I think that important–pick things people buy into. Sorry, I was venting about my school/pta in general. Example: hold pta meeting at 2 pm (so working parents can’t come), decide this year to have Halloween event with activity booths (vs just hand out candy like last year) on a Saturday afternoon, then bug people to staff booths that we don’t want and didn’t get a chance to vote on.

  4. My PTA days were quite a while ago. There was the PTA in an affluent community that looked down on working parents who could not attend daytime meetings (yours are at night) and contribute over $1000 per year PLUS participation in other fund raising events. I do not recommend this model and it would not work well at your daughter’s school with language and financial restrictions.
    Then there was the PTA at a racially very mixed school where most families did not have an ‘at home’ parent. They only got activated when a pedophile came on campus and … . I do not recommend that approach either. The school and PTA did come up with funds to lock the school against future such intrusions.
    I think maintaining status quo and finding people who can cross the cultural/language divide is your best bet. If the board doesn’t look or sound ‘like me’ I am apt to feel excluded or/and marginalized. Getting parents to even show up in their child’s classroom is clearly tough ……. Scale down and go to the classroom level is my only positive thought. The parents at your school are all as pressed or more than you and your husband are. The pressures are appalling.
    PS: Your shared experiences helped a 40something feel normalized as they spiraled into despair over life pressures recently. Your entire generation is pressed beyond reasonable limits … it is grim and appears to be getting grimmer especially for women.

  5. Not a frequent commenter, but I am also PTA president in a struggling school with very little parent interest in the PTA, so I do have some thoughts here.

    It seems like a traditional style PTA is just not working well for your school, and you might do better stepping away from that idea. Parent involvement can mean a lot of different things and in-person meetings are just really hard for a lot of people. I understand the importance of maintaining the existence of the organization if it’s a 501(c)(3), but you don’t need in-person meetings to do that. It’s kind of embarrassing not to have meetings, but I think you can try to spin it well. “Evening meetings are tough for us, but Becky is doing X and Jen is doing Y… ” so it shows you do have a lot of involvement. Or you can cut meetings waaaay back, to like four or even three for the school year, then you can say you have meetings, but not spend so much time on them.

    I would have a come-to-Jesus talk with your VP about what, exactly, she can commit to doing. Then, reach out to the informal inner circle of parents who care, and level with them: it’s too much for you and the group needs to come up with a way of being involved that works better. Don’t try to push people into formal roles that don’t work for them, but do be crystal clear that you can’t do it alone.

    Even if all you do is keep the organization alive so it’s there for better times ahead, that’s an achievement. Our PTA was founded several years before my involvement, then went dormant, but it was a real advantage to have the 501(c)(3) and other stuff all neatly done so we could hit the ground running when some motivated people came along.

    1. Unfortunately, if we don’t have meetings, we have to pay the PTA more – I’m not sure why that is. We dropped down to the lowest we could go without the price going up $500. $500 is a lot for us. And we have to have a certain number of board meetings as well. There are a lot of things we have to do to be part of PTA, and we’ve considered becoming a PTO to get around some of those requirements, but losing the support of the 2nd District PTA people would be hard for us, as a lot of times we don’t know what we are doing.

      I will eventually have to have a talk with my VP, I’m just loathe to do it. She might not actually be able to come to any meetings and I think if that is the case, she can’t actually be the VP. But she is a woman of color and we’ve been trying hard to diversify the board. She is also really active in the African-American Parent Group and School Site Council, and it’s nice to have a liaison between those groups and ours. But if she can’t even preform that part of her role, it may take the issue out of my hands. Weirdly, even though most people don’t have much interesting in participating in PTA, they care very much whether or not we “follow the rules.” Our PTA has been audited before, on the urging of parents who had personal issues with people on the board, so we have to tread carefully.

      1. Wow, that is fascinating. Where I live (East coast), the state PTA is non-existent and our efforts to pay our tiny little dues to them have been unsuccessful. Sounds like your payment structure is completely different.

        I had to get really blunt with people this year. “I cannot do this alone. If we do not have at least two additional board members, the PTA will go dark for the year. No meetings.” When people asked if “we” could do various things, I always, always said that being the only board member was maxing me out, but I would love for them to take on that project. Very, very consistent and crystal clear. And I had to accept for myself that a lot of great stuff would not happen for the school or for my child, because of other people’s choices of how to spend their time. I wish it were different. But the clear and blunt strategy has been working well in that it cuts down my commitments and puts the responsibility where it belongs.

      2. If the 2nd District PTA folks are truly, actually helpful, maybe they would consider giving you a price break on the lower meetings. Would it hurt to ask? If you make it clear that you’ve lost key people and are really struggling, maybe they could be flexible. Another option would be to round up $500 from all the parents who don’t want to have meetings 🙂 if they understood the importance, it might work.

      3. Wow. That’s tough. I was also going to say to cut down on meetings — or switch to phone meetings that are 10-20 minutes and only when you need to discuss something. Instead of meetings, spend the time reaching out to parents, learning what they care about, and cultivating leaders. 1:1 conversations – basic tenet of community organizing. Is there anyway to have something that you call a meeting but isn’t really a meeting, without losing your status?

  6. Also, I have found that often times, the lower-income parents have found ways to be involved that work for them. Sometimes this is during the day, especially for grandparents. If someone has sent multiple children through the school and this is her third time with a kid in Ms. Jones’ classroom, she may not feel the need of a room parent or PTA coordinator to solicit or facilitate her involvement.

    I think it’s time to stop burning yourself out bailing other people out or maintaining the facade of a functioning PTA. If people want events that badly, they will plan them. Figure out the bare minimum and do that.

    I would ask around your area for a private PTA parents email group, especially if it’s for low-income school parents. We have one in our area and it has been very helpful. State PTA is a disaster.

  7. When the Kid went to a diverse school with maybe 30-50% Spanish speakers at home, the PTA did three things really well. First, evening/when folks could attend event times (they planned around the local plant shift times). Second, free food, usually dinner. Third, they hired the Spanish speaking community liaison to attend and translate all directions. I think there was a grant for that. Obviously grants are a lot of work but maybe someone at the school or district level could include that part in a grant they are already working on, or maybe involving the local library somehow might be an option.

    Could you make your meetings very short and by phone or video conference? I like the idea of using meeting time to do outreach too. Everyone call 3 people they know might be willing to help with a specific task.

  8. That sounds very challenging. I’m the organizer/team leader/something like that in my hobby group (for about 6 years now), which is not at all the same of course, but from the practical point of view, I have noticed that if we want to do something, for example participate in an event, I need to a) break the things we need to do to participate into very concrete smaller tasks with deadlines and b) post a list of these tasks into our fb page and say that if all tasks are “taken” by a given date, we’ll participate and if not, then we will not. Sometimes I even distribute tasks to specific individuals, dictator-style, and tell them to transfer the tasks to others if they can’t do them.
    This works because our main problem in participation is a general “Someone else will probably take care of that/someone else will do that better” attitude, not lack of motivation as such. There cannot be any vagueness about what needs to be done and when, otherwise nobody does anything (there is a name for this in psychology, “bystander effect”). And this also works only if enough people really want to participate. There are also events that do not attract interest within our group, and I have learned to just let them go. In these cases, if I really want to go, I have to decide whether I’m willing to do everything, if not, I just forget about it. It’s been educating.

  9. This is my first foray into PTA, my daughter started school Sep 5th and at back to school night the PTA and the Principal spoke about how last year there was 100% parent participation in the PTA which guilts/motivates us all into maintaining that percentage. We love our small rural school and it shows. They hold a lot of activities that involve parents, for instance tonight is the PTA Picnic, all families are encouraged to bring a blanket and a picnic and meet on the playground for a game of kickball and meet and greet. We also encourage parent volunteering in the school not just your kids classroom and being a very activity member of the school community. So far I haven’t seen what is planned for the fundraisers but I know that the school does a few of them that are quite successful. I look forward to participating and being an active member in my daughters school life.

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