Avoiding PTO Cliques

Your PTO/PTA is such a chummy, friendly place, isn’t it? Everyone knows everyone else, and you’ve all been working together forever. It’s like the Cheers of school organizations!

If this describes your school’s PTO, warning bells should be going off in your head.

There is nothing wrong with having a fun, relaxed atmosphere, and long-time parent friends often work particularly well together. But a PTA or PTO that is too established and too entrenched can be a difficult place for newcomers to break into – or to feel welcome at.

This is precisely what you don’t want happening at your school. New faces and new ideas are vital for the long-term health of your PTO, not to mention your school generally, the kids there, and strong family engagement. If the same group of folks is always in charge, year after year, you run the risk of newcomers being rebuffed – or even shunned.

Here are 9 tips for keeping cliques out of your PTO program:

1. Establish term limits. It may sound silly – we’re talking about parents and teachers here, not senators! – but term limits may be just what you need to keep a healthy rate of turnover happening at your school PTO. At the very least, consider term limits for the officer posts.

2. Watch out for assumptions. It can be easy, in a sea of largely familiar faces, to assume that everyone there knows what you’re talking about when you refer to, say, “the bake sale disaster of 2012.” But the parent new to your school this year doesn’t. Always explain things adequately, so that everyone in the room is up to speed on what’s going on.

3. Maintain order. You don’t need to follow official parliamentary procedure, but your PTO meetings should not be a cacophony of shouting and muddled voices. Only one person should be speaking at once, and there should be detailed minutes of every meeting that are available to the entire group afterwards. Don’t let shy newcomers get verbally trampled by PTO veterans.

4. Mix things up. Every once in a while, incorporate an icebreaker activity into your meetings – such as requiring everyone in the room to stand up and shake hands with someone they haven’t yet met, or partner up and find out something fun about the person they’re speaking with. Activities like these help get people moving out of their comfort zones and also keep meetings enjoyable.

5. Translate as needed. If your school has a large number of non-English-speakers, consider enlisting an interpreter or bilingual parent to translate both written and oral communications for your PTO. You never want parents to feel that participation is limited on the basis of ethnicity or language.

6. Keep everyone informed. Don’t assume that “everyone” at your school knows that PTO meetings are always held on a certain day at a certain time. The “everyone” you’re thinking of may simply be the folks already involved in your PTO.

7. Build a warm welcome into your PTO procedures. Whenever a new parent comes to a meeting, assign someone to follow up with that person, thank them for coming, and ask if they have any questions that need to be answered. Sometimes this small bit of outreach is the difference between feeling welcomed and feeling ignored – or, worse still, feeling ostracized.

8. Nametags. Wear ’em at every meeting. Simple but highly effective (and helpful even for PTO regulars who are simply bad with names or too sleep-deprived for quick recall!).

9. Listen – truly listen – to new ideas. This tip may be the hardest of all to follow in actual practice, but it’s one of the most important. When someone new introduces an opinion or idea, listen carefully and give it the weight it deserves. A dismissive, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work” is a sure way to deflate eager new volunteers and make them reluctant to come back.